November 11, 1997
by Edmund Tsang
Paul Sousa, Superintendent for the Mobile County Public School System, says the coming months are "crucial" to the future of the school system. It can continue to make steady progress in test scores, disciplinary problems, and adding new school buildings and renovating old ones, or "it can slip back into hopelessness" of yester-years, Sousa added. "The school system did not have an increase [in funding] since 1959. We have done all that we can do with the money we have. We are going to have to have a funding solution. I don't know what's that going to be, but it has to happen for us to move forward," Sousa said in an interview with The Harbinger last week.
By leveraging the revenue from 7.5 mills of property tax, the school system was able to raise, via bonds, $65 million for a new construction program two years ago. "Fourteen new buildings have come on line or are coming on line, on time and in budget," Sousa said. "People are starting to realize what a great situation it is to have decent facilities for our students. Interests in our schools are going up when people see new buildings going up. It's very crucial to keep interests in our schools going up because there are still many needs in the school system for it to achieve its full potential. We have to find a way to continue because if we can't, we will slip backward."
According to the most recent study of facility needs for the Mobile school system, which was carried out by architect Nicolas Holmes in 1992, it will take about $350 million to add new school buildings and to renovate existing facilities to meet student enrollment needs. With the current construction program completed by next summer, the school system needs additional stable funding sources to continue the construction program and to address technology needs, explained Sousa. "There are 47 schools that still don't have central air or heat, and there are still overcrowding, both in the City of Mobile and out in the county," Sousa added.
"When I first became superintendent, I set five goals and they were student achievement, make sure schools are safe, straighten the school's financial situation, building schools, and installing technology," Sousa stated. "Our student test scores have made tremendous improvement. We had a $27 million debt and we paid that off, so our bond rating improved from a double B to Triple A. We have decreased the disciplinary problems across the board. Sixty-five percent of all disciplinary problems come from the middle schools, and we have decreased the number of disciplinary referrals in the middle school from 27,875 in the 1995-96 academic year to 11,084 in the 1996-97 year, a decrease of 40 percent, and suspensions from 5,210 in 95-96 to 4,166 in 96-97. Fourteen new buildings will be up by next summer but the building program is not complete. And we have yet to address the technology issue because technology is expensive."
To complete his goals for the school system, Sousa figures he need about $30 million more per year in revenue, of which $25 million will be dedicated to school construction. Sousa explains that the school system can manage effectively an annual building program of $25 million; anything more than $25 million might result in inefficiency, Sousa says. The remaining $5 million could be used to fund additional remediation programs for those falling behind and accelerated programs for the fast-learners so everyone has access, and to begin to address technology needs, including professional training for teachers.
"Local funding for public education in Mobile County is 14 mils (of property tax) below the state average, and 1 mil generates about $1.9 million. Baldwin county spends $500 more per student than Mobile County," Sousa said in the interview. "Whether you use the state average or what Baldwin County spends per student, it comes out to about $30 million in additional revenue per year for Mobile to be competitive in the state or with neighboring Baldwin County."
While Sousa is certain of the amount of additional revenue the school system needs, he is uncertain how the money can be raised. "We tried ad volarum tax twice and both times we failed. I think there were 35 tries to raise property tax in Alabama and 32 had failed. Baldwin County tried to raise property tax to fund its schools and failed, but their commissioners gave it a one cent sale tax.."
"People don't support school? I don't accept that. I just think people don't want to pay tax even though I hear them say they are willing to pay their fair share of tax. I hear property tax is more progressive. But then again I understand why people with fixed incomes are against raising property tax," Sousa said. "So I pose this question: If people don't support property tax, what would they support? And if you can't pass a tax, what will happen to the students?"
Citizens for Betterment of Education (CBE), a grass-roots organizations with many members who are parents with children in public schools, is launching an effort to identify additional funding sources and what the public would support. According to CBE co-chair Connie Hudson, the group has hired a consultant group from Auburn University to analyze the various funding options: sales tax, property tax, personal income tax, occupation license fees, and a mixed of taxes for the incorporated and un-incorporated areas of Mobile County.
Presently, the group is conducting a random telephone survey of 1,000 households in Mobile County and a written survey of its supporters to find out their opinions on funding sources for the school system, Hudson said, and the results of the survey will be presented in a meeting set for December 8. The goal is to have sample legislation drafted in December in time for the January, 1998 opening of the legislative session in Montgomery. If the legislators approve the plan, a ballot can be held in June, 1998.
Carolyn Akers, who heads The Mobile Education Foundation, a private non-profit that works on school issues, told The Harbinger that "the school system certainly does need additional funding and that funding is long over due." Akers also stated: "I am in support of additional local funding and we are completing our survey by the Citizens for the Betterment of Education."
Joseph Newman, professor of education and chair of the educational foundation and leadership program at the University of South Alabama, said if one looks strictly at economics, local property taxes are the obvious choice for raising more school revenues. "Alabama still ranks last in the nation in per capita local property taxation, and Mobilians could raise their local property taxes modestly and still rank very low in the nation," Newman said. "Looking at political realities, though, local sales taxes have a strong appeal, especially to those who mistakenly believe many people pay no property taxes. That's a bad misconception, because virtually everyone pays property taxes. Those who own homes pay property tax directly; those who rent also pay property taxes, but indirectly -- through their landlords."
"In Mobile, we still have a mean-spirited 'sock it to the poor' mentality," added Newman. "So raising our local sales taxes -- which are regressive, and which rank moderate to high by national standards -- has political appeal. That's sad, that's unfortunate, but that's a political reality."
The last effort to increase school revenues via raising property tax was derailed by former state senator Ann Bedsole, according to former school superintendent Dr. Doug Magann. Magann contends that Rep. Bill Clark drafted a bill allowing for a referendum for a 15.5 mil increase in property tax to fund Mobile's school system, and a parent-led campaign generated 20,000 post cards to Montgomery over a few weeks. In Alabama, the Constitution allows a single senator from a district's legislative delegation to bottle-up a bill, Magann explains in his memoir that was published in The Harbinger about his days as school superintendent. The simple referendum was replaced by the "Cafeteria Bill" drafted by Bedsole, which had nine separate parts where the public could approve none, one, several, or all of them, and decide how money was to be spent and the amount of property tax to increase to fund that part.
The voters in Mobile County defeated all nine parts of the "Cafeteria Bill" in 1992.
Hudson of CBE said in a telephone interview last week that while "it's possible" a similar maneuver could be launched to defeat grass-roots effort to raise additional funds for Mobile's school system, "we are hopeful that it will remain the way we drafted the legislation." Hudson added that "the legislators have attended our meetings and many told us that they are supportive of our effort."
CEB is also soliciting support from a broad base, including representatives and officials from all municipalities in Mobile County, which Hudson said she "didn't know if that component was there before."
School superintendent Sousa also said while that "could happen," his impression is that Mobile's legislative delegation wants to help. "They told us to tell them what we need to do. That sounds like they want to support us," Sousa added.
In the past, while people residing within the city limit voted in favor of a property tax increase to fund public education, the referenda failed because they had little or no support from those living in the county. Sousa said the reason why past property tax referenda had failed is because "the county had been ignored. We didn't listen to the county. We are making an effort to bring them to the table."
Sousa said mayors from municipalities in Mobile County will be brought together to determine the funding sources. "I think they all see the needs and their attitudes are being changed," Sousa stated. "I think the public sooner or later is not going to tolerate the fact that obstacles are thrown at the school system whenever it wants to move forward. Somebody will have to clear the way for us. The School Board has no power to raise funds, Only commissioners and the legislators have that power in Alabama. Unfortunately, students have no such power, too."
Edmund Tsang, Ph.D., is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of South Alabama. He is currently involved in two federally-funded projects to enhance math, science, and engineering education in K-16.