Council sets conditions for backing school tax increase
Clif Knight, Hartselle Enquirer
Hartselle Mayor Dwight Tankersley and members of the city council agreed it's time to start planning for a new high school and indicated they would support an additional property tax to fund such a project, but only under certain conditions.
First, the request for a vote on an additional property tax would have to come from the school board.
Second, the school board would assume responsibility for substantiating the need for a new school and building support in the community for a property tax increase.
Third, the additional property tax would end when the bond issue for the school is paid off.
The possibility of a sales tax increase as an option was ruled out.
"We campaigned on a platform of no new taxes," Council Member Bill Smelser said. "If you ask for a property tax increase, it will be left up to the voters."
"I tell you it's not going to be a sales tax increase," added Kenny Thompson, council president. "I have no problem with a property tax increase that's approved by the voters."
Discussion of the need for a new high school and the means to finance it was the subject of a two-hour work session at F. E. Burleson Elementary School Monday night. All city officials and school board members were present.
Superintendent Dr. Mike Reed pointed out that the high school, with 832 students, is near capacity and the student population is growing.
"Our current enrollment shows we have 43 more students than the number of had at the same time last year," he said. Total system enrollment includes 602 out-of-city students.
Old vs. new
The question of what to do with the old building is also an issue.
Thompson asked school board officials what plans they had for the current facility.
"I have some thoughts on that but it's all preliminary at this point," Reed said. "Grades 9-12 would occupy the new high school, grades 7-8 would be relocated to the old high school and grades 5-6 would be housed at the junior high. This would ensure ample space for growth at all six schools. In addition, unused space at the old high school would be converted into an adult community education center. It would offer a variety of classes ranging from cake decorating to computer programming and would be self-supporting.
Hartselle High remediation director Leah Blackwood called attention to some of unmet needs at the high school because of space limitations.
"We are lacking in space for vocational classes in agriculture and auto mechanics, fine arts languages and drama. Some of the classrooms are shared. We have no auditorium and the library needs to be larger," she said. "If you speak to the teachers and parents, they will tell you we need more space to expand our curriculum. I encourage you by come by the school and check it out and look around to see what's available at other schools in our area that we don't have."
"We're not just trying to sell the people on a new building but the new and innovative opportunities and services that can be offered to our students," school board member Dr. Andy Dukes said. "When this happens business expands, the community improves and everyone benefits. If you approach it with the mindset that it's never been done before it won't be done this time. We have to approach this with excitement and enthusiasm."
The issues of a new high school is not new, according to School Board member Jeff Gray.
"We discussed it at length five years ago when Dr. Hartsell was superintendent. Based on the population growth trend at that time it was projected that a new high school would be required in 15 years. I believe our population has grown faster than what was anticipated, five years are gone and we're no closer to meeting the need. "I don't want people 10 years from now to be asking the school board why it didn't act sooner."
Cost could reach $30 million
Dr. Reed said a new high school would need a minimum of 170,000 square feet of floor space to accommodate an enrollment of 1,000 students. Based on the current cost of $110 per square foot the cost of a bare bones facility of that size would run about $18.7 million. With two gymnasiums, an auditorium and other amenities, the cost could reach $25 to $30 million.
Tankersley estimated revenue from 12 additional mills of property tax would be needed to pay for $25 million bond over 30 years. The cost to the residential property owner would be about $120 per $100,000 of assessed value. He suggested that if such a tax is approved by voters any revenue above the bonded indebtedness should go to the school system.
Dr. Reed told city officials he helped promote advalorem tax measures for three school projects while serving as a principal and superintendent in Mississippi.
"We all need to sing from the same page," he said. "We need to develop and execute a strong grass roots campaign and enlist the active involvement of all of our teachers and parents. We need to take our message to every door in town. We've got a chance if we all stay on the same page."
Smelser also questioned if the board could "tighten its belt."
"There's a constant vigil on dollars and cents," Reed said. "But we can be the most efficient school system in the world and still not be able to save enough money to build a new high school."
School board has land
Questions were raised about the suitability of the city's 53-acre school site on Bethel Road and the city's infrastructure surrounding it.
Hank Quattlebaum, school maintenance directors said the pumping station serving Burleson's wastewater needs is large enough to support a new high school.
Bob Francis, chairman of Hartselle Development Board, addressed traffic flow concerns.
"It's very likely that the north downtown bypass will be constructed within 10 years," he said. "A lot of things still have to fall in place but this will be key to transportation modifications in the city."
Among those will be a bridge over current railroad crossing that will enable students to get to the school without a grade crossing.
Where do we go from here?
Reed asked the council for its support in the process before the board continues with the planning process.
Tankersley said the board has his support, but with some reservations.
"We still need answers to questions about why a high school is needed," he said.