By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Wednesday, June 10, officials with the Baldwin County Board of Education responded to allegations that they acted inappropriately in the recent school property tax referendum.
Director of Communications with the Baldwin County Schools System Terry Wilhite said, “The state requires that a school district have a minimum tax of 10 mills to participate in the foundation program. Baldwin only collects two mills above the state minimum.”
Director Wilhite said that, “Info from the state department of education shows our rate is equal to Conecuh and Monroe counties, less than Escambia (17) and far less than Mobile (29.5). Probably the only county we compare to in terms of size and growth is Shelby where the rate is 30 mils. In fact, had we been successful in getting the increases we asked for, we would still be less than Bullock. Mobile/Pritchard would even be more than Baldwin.” “When you look at all funding sources for Baldwin schools you see that we rank no. 98 in the state.”
Wilhite wrote, “The Baldwin County Public School System has more students than it has classrooms to put them – this is the simple driver behind a campaign for revenue to build school houses.” “The school system is simply seeking a revenue stream to build school houses to handle the massive growth.”
Wilhite denied charges by State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) that the Baldwin County School Board misappropriated funds by using school resources to promote its tax referendum. Regarding the lawsuit filed by Zeigler, Wilhite said, “It is a free country. If the state auditor wants to spend taxpayer money on frivolous law suits, that’s his prerogative.”
Wilhite said that Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) gave an opinion on the referendum, “In response to a request by the Baldwin County Board of Education, not at the request of Ziegler.”
Wilhite denied that the failed referendum or the allegations that school personnel and resources were used to promote a yes vote had anything to do with Robbie Owen’s decision to step down as superintendent of the Baldwin County Public Schools. Wilhite said that Owen, “Stepped forward from his role of principal of Rockwell Elementary to lead the school system when Dr. Alan Lee resigned. Recently Mr. Owen announced he would like to return to his principalship at Rockwell. He is a very honorable man and he personally has the trust and backing of those for and those against a tax hike. He said his heart was working directly with students, and that is what he has chosen to do.”
Wilhite strongly objected to the reporting on this story by the Alabama Political Reporter on Wednesday. “We receive regular news coverage from the Mobile Press-Register, AL.com, three TV stations and four community newspapers. None of them have reported on this “scandal” you refer to. Strange to me that you can uncover something from Montgomery when media who cover this area regularly cannot.”
The Alabama Political Reporter does not claim to have uncovered anything in Baldwin County and is only vaguely aware of what Al.com and Mobile TV are reporting on every issue. Our resources would be stretched much too thin to adequately cover county governance in all 67 counties of Alabama and the over 172 public school systems in the state in addition to our unmatched laser focus on state governance and reporting on elections as well as the coverage of the Alabama Congressional Delegation.
But as Jim Zeigler said in an earlier statement, “This is now a statewide issue. Three other counties have held tax votes since the Baldwin referendum. Unless we win this suit, taxpayer funds can be used for campaigning. There may later be a statewide vote on tax increases or gambling, and we need to stop the political use of taxpayer money before those referendums.”
Much of the money was spent on television advertising. “We did not want taxpayer money, and we are talking about a lot of taxpayers’ money, that is supposed to run the educational system to go instead to a political campaign,” said Zeigler.
WKRG-TV News 5 and Strategy Research conducted a poll showing that 81 percent of voters in Baldwin County oppose using tax dollars for political referendums 92 percent of voters who voted against the tax increase package reported to pollsters that they opposed the use of taxpayer money by the Baldwin County Board of Education in the campaign.
Wilhite said, “Baldwin is a place that young families come by the droves to raise and educate their children and it is also a destination for folks to come and retire; the board has to reach audiences beyond parents and it invested the dollars in communication that reached them. It was a good faith effort to communicate that we need school buildings to accommodate the growth. Plain and simple. The entire county – old and young alike – has a stake in the future of community schools.”