By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Athens School officials want to raise property taxes by 12 million and opponents allege that there has been improper use of school resources to pass that agenda in an August 25 referendum.
Similar allegations were made in Baldwin County. There, Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange (R) issued an AG’s opinion that using tax dollars to promote a tax increase is not illegal.
Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) and four Baldwin County residents sued the Baldwin County School Board and AG Strange over the issue. That case was dismissed by the judge. On Thursday, August 13, the Alabama Political Reporter spoke with Zeigler about the case and the City of Athens situation. Auditor Zeigler said, “We have until August 27 to decide whether to appeal that ruling.”
Auditor Zeigler said, “I have received a complaint about the City of Athens.” Zeigler said that members of his auditor citizen volunteers have reported that the schools are using school personnel, property, and other resources to promote a “Yes” vote in the controversial referendum to raise people’s property taxes on Tuesday August 25.
The Alabama Association of School Boards (AASB) has issued a statement defending using taxpayers’ resources to promote referendums urging taxpayers to give school systems more resources. The AASB wrote, “School funding is not a private, political or partisan issue. It is a matter of public concern that benefits and supports those who benefit from that funding — children. Legal authorities have repeatedly determined that public entities can use public funds, time or property to advocate for matters that have been determined to serve a public purpose. School boards championing efforts to increase public support for education funding absolutely serves a public purpose.”
Auditor Zeigler said, “We have got to stop this,” either in the courts or the legislative session. Zeigler said that it is “unfair” for public resources to be used in campaigns like this. The citizens opposed to the referendum don’t get a similar access to promote their message.
On Thursday, August 12, the Chairman of the Stop the Small Business Tax PAC John Wahl accused Athens City Schools Superintendent Trey Holladay of planning on building his new buildings whether the tax passes or not. “Today, the Decatur Daily quoted Superintendent Holladay as threatening to cut up to 47 teachers from the school payroll if the tax increase wasn’t passed in order to fund his lavish new construction projects.” “Is this really the kind of behavior that we should accept from our top school official? Lies, deception, and intimidation? Apparently, despite his earlier statements, Superintendent Holladay now believes that a fancy building is a higher priority than keeping 47 teachers. This is further proof that Holladay and the School Board’s claim that this tax is “for the children” is patently false – another lie. Not one penny of the proposed tax would be spent in the classroom on actual education. We support our teachers here in Athens and believe that quality education is important to our city’s future. We would never attempt to deceive them or threaten them. Cutting teachers’ jobs to build new buildings is unacceptable.”
Chairman Wahl said, “Holladay believes that lying to the public and threatening teachers will scare people into voting yes on the tax increase. I believe that our teachers are what makes Athens City Schools great, not the buildings. We need to support our teachers and protect the future of our next generation by making sure they have the tools they need in the classrooms. I am afraid that Trey Holladay doesn’t understand what makes a good education.”
The pro-tax increase group Citizens for Athens City Schools are distributing flyers supporting the tax increase. They wrote on Facebook, “The anti-group is at it again spreading more lies about our very own Superintendent! Please show your support and send a message by changing your profile picture. Lies will not be tolerated!”
The AASB said, “Allegations that school officials, acting under these authorities, have committed wrongdoings are reckless, inappropriate and fail to advance public discourse on an important matter to the community.”
If Athens voters agree to raise their taxes they will be bucking the recent trend. Demands of new tax increases by Governor Robert Bentley (R) have made voters statewide reluctant to give government more of their dollars.
Colbert County in northwest Alabama became the third Alabama county to soundly reject a tax increase. 88 percent of Colbert voters voted no in a higher-than-expected turnout.
According to Zeigler the vote follows a pattern. Voters in Lawrence County had voted no by 80 percent May 28, and Baldwin County voted 68 percent on March 31.
Auditor Zeigler said at the time, “Voters are sending a strong message: Government must better manage its present budget rather than take more money from taxpayers.”
The vote is on August 25. Polls open at 7:00 am.