Special Report: Breaking away from Baldwin County schools

BALDWIN COUNTY, Ala. (WALA) – Around this time of year, the City of Orange Beach is packed with tourists, eager to take in the beach and the coastal lifestyle.

While Orange Beach prides itself on being a tourist mecca, the families who live here year-round want to make sure their children get a good education.

Many share the view of Sean Eaton who said cost shouldn’t stop progress.

“I guess it would depend on how much they were talking about raising on the property taxes and tag taxes and everything else they would raise taxes for to support it. But in the long run, I think it would be what is best,” Eaton said.

Others fall in the camp of Leck Lilayuva, a chef who runs Big Fish Restaurant and Bar on Canal Street. He worries about where the funding will come from.

“I can’t imagine where they’re going to get the money. So if they’re going to get it from somewhere, I imagine it’s obviously going to come from the businesses and property owners. And being that we’re already one of the highest taxed cities in the state already, it’s just going to be insane,” Lilayuva said.

Orange Beach residents have a major decision to make. Soon, a feasibility study will be released that will show if the town and create and maintain its own school system. Baldwin County Public School officials said that move would only hurt, not help the children.

“I am concerned that in order to create something that’s better than what we have, because I think we have great opportunities for our kids, in order to create that, they’re going to have to raise an awful lot of money and it concerns me that that might not happen,” Angie Swiger, the school board member representing Orange Beach and Gulf Shores, said.student population1 Special Report: Breaking away from Baldwin County schools

When looking at the student population, there are only 816 students from Orange Beach on Paradise Island. More than half of whom are at Orange Beach Elementary School.

Seven years ago, when Orange Beach and Gulf Shores considered breaking away from the county school system, Swiger was all for it. Now, she has a different viewpoint.

“We made a lot of changes with a new superintendent and we shrunk the size of the Central Office and put the dollars back in the classroom and started paying more attention to the needs here in our island schools,” Swiger said.

Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said he’s seen changes too, only not for the better.

“I’m extremely frustrated that in Baldwin County we have become accepting of this academic mediocrity, this lowest common denominator. We researched our schools. Our schools are average or below in a county that’s average or below in the state in a state that’s 49th in the nation. We would never accept that out of our football teams, why would you accept that out of our students?” Kennon said.

Fox10 News sat down with Baldwin County Chief School Financial Officer John Wilson to find out what a move like this would mean financially for the county system and for Orange Beach.

We verified his data with the Alabama Department of Education to make sure we were accurate.

“County-wide taxes follow the student, they do not follow where the tax was generated. And our current calculations state that Orange Beach would have 2.7 percent of the total students in Baldwin County,” Wilson explains.

“And so basically how the county-wide taxes would be split is Orange Beach would get 2.7 percent of those county-wide taxes based on their student enrollment.”

In other words, about $4.6 million in property and sales tax would stay in Orange Beach and not be given to the Baldwin County School System.

On the flip side, because of the way state funding works in Alabama, Orange Beach would end up losing about $2.8 million, meaning if revenues stay the same, it would be one of the poorest funded districts in the state, according to state and county representatives.

According to the website Orange Beach Educational Excellence (OBEE), it’s pointed out that Orange Beach currently sends $12 million to Baldwin County and to Alabama and gets roughly $3.6 million in return. That’s not acceptable to supporters of a separate school district.

“Where’s the taxpayer’s outrage? That’s what I don’t understand. We as taxpayers, I don’t have any kids in the public school, but I am tired of sending them money that’s wasted in a poor product or a poor job being done and I’m tired of them asking us for more,” Kennon said.

The same website said money from the mega-tourist industry in Orange Beach gives them “tremendous tax leverage because of tourist dollars.” They report that for every $1 a full-time resident pays in city taxes, the city earns at least $7 dollars in taxes paid by tourists and non-full-time residents.

As for Baldwin County, Wilson said by losing Orange Beach’s property tax value, which is about $7 million, additional state funding would be added to supplement the loss. That gain contrasted with the reduction of state funding for the lost 816, Baldwin County actually stands to gain about $2.5 million annually.proficiencies Special Report: Breaking away from Baldwin County schools

“More state funding would be helpful because the student count for state funding is always one year behind. And so we’re always playing catch up. We always have an extra thousand kids that we don’t get funding for. So any kind of increase in state funding would help us as far as being able to meet the growth demands,” Wilson said.

The city is waiting for the return of a feasibility study that would show them exactly how much it would cost to start up their own system. But county estimates show that Orange Beach needs to raise about $5.5 million to get back to the current county-level of funding.

At a meeting held by the OBEE on Tuesday, guest speaker and New York Times best selling author Andy Andrews pointed out that the 70 cities that have their own city school system have seen steady economic growth.

“The one thing those 70 cities have in common, is that their economy has grown stronger in every area. And the only thing those 70 cities have in common is those 70 cities grabbed and created control of their educational system for their children,” Andrews said.

Even though the county does stand to gain financially if Orange Beach does decide to break away, Baldwin County School Board Member Swiger said she worries Orange Beach’s economy may not be able to reliably stand alone.

“Being a small, a very small in and of itself in Orange Beach, if there’s a storm or a BP Oil Spill or something of that magnitude that kills the economy, rather than being able to rely on the diversity of the entire county, and the county’s financial standing, they only have their small portion to rely on and it concerns me that those children are going to be in peril or their education is going to be at risk something were to happen that would take that financial benefit away,” Swiger said.

She adds that the school board won’t fight whatever decision Orange Beach officials ultimately make, she just hopes they think it through.

“I just want people to make a good decision and to educate themselves on the issues and I want them to know what they’re getting into to make sure they’re making the right decision for their kids,” Swiger said.

OBEE said it plans to add additional meetings to its online calendar to provide more opportunity for public input. The City of Orange Beach said they will have a town hall meeting on May 20 to discuss the feasibility study.

FOX10 News will have an update on this story when we know more.

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