Madison County Board of Education disagrees about path forward for new school

MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - The Madison County Board of Education voted on budgets Thursday, passing a plan for the new fiscal year but dividing when it came to the proposed capital plan.

The FY18 General Fund budget is balanced, leaders say, with adequate reserves and $1.5 million in carryover. Personnel accounts for 83% of the operating budget. Also included are minor increases to the IT budget to help the district replace aging devices and an amount for the transportation department to contract with a company to track school buses. This budget passed unanimously.

It was the capital plan where the numbers didn't compute for some board members.

Capital Plan Disagreement

First up for a vote on Thursday was the proposed capital plan, known as "Plan A." This included the $46 million line item in BRAC funding for the new school.

The problem is the school board has an agreement with the Madison County Commission to use that sum to build a school on Pine Grove Road with a 1600-student capacity. The district doesn't think that's possible anymore. They think there's only enough money to build a school with a 900-student capacity.

"I think we would like to be committed to that school. I think financially we can't honestly say we have the capacity to do that," summarized Angie Bates, board president. "We are currently under a 60-day continuance with a Federal judge in order to try to determine exactly which way we should go and what funding sources may be available. Because we have made it clear that $46 million is not enough money. And without an increase in funding sources, we will not be able to build a school to meet the capacity it needs in order to meet the agreement but also in order to be equitable to what facilities are available."

The funding problem created a divide within the board Thursday.

Some voted for, others against, funding the new school in the capital plan. Ultimately, it failed 2-3.

Bates was one of the votes against it.

"I have historically voted no to a capital plan that included the new school. I personally do not think it is in the best interest of the county system on the whole," she said of her vote. "I do not feel like a full high school is what that area needs."

Board member Dave Weis said he did not want to approve a capital plan that included a project that the system didn't have money to back up.

Superintendent Matt Massey proposed another capital plan, "Plan B," this time without the new school listed. Instead, the $43 million would have been distributed across the system for various other improvements to existing buildings. It included $16 million for a renovation upgrade and expansion to Sparkman High School.

Board members began to vote on Plan B but ultimately disagreed here, too.

Board member Shere Rucker said not funding the new school makes no sense and passing the plan would "cut the life blood" out of the new school proposal.

Dave Weis said he wanted to reflect reality. He said the school system can no longer "kick the can down the road."

Rucker pointed out that a vote for this plan, which would mean a vote not to continue the new school process, could violate the board's agreement with the Madison County Commission.

After an hour-long executive session, the board returned. Three abstained and two voted against Plan B. It also failed.

What's Next

Bates said because no new capital plan was approved, the system would revert back to the capital plan most recently in place. That plan includes the new school.

The state of Alabama requires the school system to submit a capital plan though.

"This allows us to send a letter to the state to let them know that we are basically still considering what we need to do," said Bates.

She cited the 60-day continuance with the federal judge, saying there is still time to figure out additional funding sources.

"We've been talking with other leadership in the area, our local leadership, along with our state leadership, to make them very informed as far as our fiscal responsibilities and our maintenance needs."

This comes at the same time the school system is seeking an ad valorem tax renewal, which will be on the Senate Special Election ballot in December. The tax renewal would be countywide. It would generate $14.3 million for the school system to renew funding at a time when leaders say the local funding is very low already. They reiterated this at Thursday's meeting.

"We have a lot of opportunities coming up in the future to try to maintain some of our revenue stream and we would like to be able to do that. But I think we all know we will not revert back to our funding sources that we had in 2008. It's been difficult," she said.

Of the division among the board about where to go, Bates commented, "Our goal is to try to make a more sustainable fiscal plan. And in doing that we need to make some tough decisions."

In moving ahead with the new school, the school system doesn't just need to worry about building it. They also need to make sure it is racially, geographically, and socio-economically balanced. There is still a federal desegregation order over Madison County schools and a judge has told the board they must quickly agree on a path toward unitary status.