$1.8M in online sales taxes reamins in escrow as schools look to fund SROs
By Michael Wetzel
For the Enquirer
Even as officials at school systems in Morgan County seek funding for school resource officers, more than $1.8 million sits untouched in a court-ordered escrow account as the Morgan County Commission appeals an order that it abide by a local law requiring it to distribute most online sales taxes to the county’s three school districts.
The escrowed funds are increasing by about $180,000 per month.
The school districts and the commission have submitted their written arguments to the state Supreme Court, but it is unknown when the court will rule. The County Commission has requested oral arguments in the case that, if granted, could delay the ultimate decision, according to Brian Oakes, a lawyer for Hartselle City Schools and various plaintiffs affiliated with the Alabama Education Association.
The school systems got a boost this month when the Legislative Council for the Alabama Legislature intervened in the appeal on the side of the plaintiffs.
As the parties wait for a resolution, a new school year has begun in which only one of the three school districts — Hartselle City — has a law enforcement presence in each of its six schools.
Both Morgan County Schools and Decatur City Schools have fewer than one SRO for every two schools.
Morgan County Schools
But for the online sales tax money going into escrow, Morgan County Schools would be receiving the largest share of the three districts. The formula included in the local law sponsored in 2019 by state Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, was designed to divide the online sales taxes received by the Morgan County Commission in the same way brick-and-mortar sales taxes are distributed. Under that formula, Morgan County Schools would have received about 44 percent of the escrowed amount, or $815,994.
In the Morgan County district, the schools presently employ seven SROs with a fiscal 2021 budget of $285,050. Six are retired sheriff’s deputies, and one is an officer with the Trinity Police Department, according to district spokeswoman Lisa Screws. The seven SROs cover 18 schools on 14 separate campuses.
Screws said a sheriff’s office proposal to add three SROs is under consideration. It would increase the number of SROs to nine trained and equipped through the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office, however, is seeking funding from the school district for four more SROs.
“We have submitted a proposal asking for a $165,000 increase to allow us to add four active duty deputies to the program,” said MCSO spokesman Mike Swafford. “We believe this provides the coverage and sustainability we all want in the program.”
He said sheriff’s office representatives met with school officials in May and July and have a meeting planned this week with new superintendent Robert Elliott Jr.
Elliott said the SRO program continues to be a vital part of keeping students and faculty safe.
“The element of security and safety that our SROs bring to our schools is invaluable,” he said. “We appreciate the relationship, trust and respect they are building with our students, parents, faculties and communities.”
Screws said some campuses share SROs, while others have their own.
County administrator Julie Reeves said the SRO cost initially comes from the county’s general fund, which funds the sheriff’s office. The sheriff’s office is reimbursed by the school system, and the sheriff’s office repays the general fund.
“The general fund doesn’t take a hit for the SRO program,” said Morgan County Commission Chairman Ray Long. “The schools pay for the security – but at the end of the day, all of it is taxpayers’ money.”
Elliott said he had no comment on the usage of the online sales tax money if the school systems were to receive a favorable ruling from the Supreme Court.
“The school board will not budget monies that currently do not exist in our revenue stream,” he said.
Hartselle City Schools
Under the local law, Hartselle City Schools would receive 14.3 percent of the online sales taxes now going into an escrow account. But for the Morgan County Commission’s appeal of the lower court’s order, that means the district would have collected $264,597 to date.
Hartselle Superintendent Dee Dee Jones said all six campuses have a law enforcement officer present during school days and at school activities.
She said the school resource officers are full-time members of the Hartselle Police Department, and the school protection officers are retired law enforcement officers who are equipped and certified by the police department. She said the school system pays $187,000 a year for the SROs and SPOs.
“We have a partnership with the city,” Jones said. “Their willingness helps us keep costs down.”
Hartselle High School and Hartselle Junior High have SROs. Hartselle Intermediate, F.E. Burleson, Crestline and Barkley Bridge elementary schools have school protection officers.
She said if online sales tax money becomes available to the school district, a portion of it will be used to fund the SRO program.
“We’re taking that money now out of local funds,” she said. “That money could replace some of the local funds that could be used on other projects.”
She said her school system has, as have the others, implemented other safety programs, including restricted access to the schools and surveillance cameras.
“Our schools have card readers and keyless entry for teachers,” she said. “We also conduct lockdown drills, and we invite the police and fire departments to observe.”
District 3 Commissioner Don Stisher and Long said they were in favor of giving the school systems 25 percent of the money before the lawsuit was filed last year. “And that could still be on the table if we win,” Long said.
If the school systems win, they would receive more than 93 percent of the money, with the rest going to the county and its volunteer fire departments.
Stisher said municipalities throughout the county have police forces and first responders who are often minutes away from a school if an incident such as an active shooter was to occur.
“I don’t feel at any one time that we are vulnerable,” he said. “Eight years ago, (a shooter) could have wiped out a whole campus. Now I believe he will be stopped and caught on the scene. I have that confidence in our law enforcement. I’ve seen the training.”
District 1 Commissioner Jeff Clark said electronic door systems and other security equipment provide needed protection for students.
“I’m not open to spending money for more SROs,” he said. “That is between the schools and sheriff … At this point, I’m not in favor of it because we don’t have (the online sales tax money).”
He said the county has “more needs than just more SROs. That’s a school issue. They can fund whatever they want to fund … In a worst-case scenario, it’ll be very difficult to keep a facility that big secure with one person.”
Long said school security is important, but the need for safety is not limited to schools.
“We want everybody to be safe,” he said. “We try to have good smooth roads. Kids travel up and down the roads getting to schools. We try to provide law enforcement at home.”
The underlying dispute that has left the online sales taxes received by the County Commission in escrow involves the constitutionality of the local law Orr sponsored and that took effect Oct. 1, 2019.
The statewide Simplified Sellers Use Tax law, which became mandatory for most online retailers Jan. 1, 2019, provides for an 8 percent online sales tax to be collected by the state, with a portion to be allocated to the general funds of county commissions. The local law, however, requires the Morgan County Commission to redirect most of the money.
“It’s not the county versus the school systems,” Long said. “We’re fighting a legislative overreach.”
The Legislative Council of the state Legislature, however, disagrees the local law represented overreach and filed a friend-of-court brief this month with the Supreme Court to buttress the school districts’ arguments.
“In essence, (the county commissioners) ask this Court to invade the domain of the Legislature and its authority to provide for the expenditure of county funds,” the Legislative Council argued in its brief, which it said it filed “because of the impact and importance of this matter to the validity and enforceability of local legislative enactments.”