By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, August 25, the people of Athens will vote on whether or not to pay more property taxes so that the City Schools system can embark on an ambitious wave of public works projects, they say will improve public education in the City.
Opponents say that the people of Alabama are already taxed enough, and that the school system will be just fine without the new revenues.
State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R) was in Athens on Monday, Aug. 24 at 1 p.m. at the Limestone County Courthouse to do a news briefing on the four citizen complaints he received about Athens school officials using public resources to campaign for a yes vote in the Aug. 25 tax increase referendum. Zeigler said that it is wrong for there to be vote yes signs on school property and for the School Board’s paid Superintendent to use his time and official school functions to promote the referendum.
Donna McDaniel who supports the tax increase said in a statement, “Jim Ziegler said that he was speaking as a citizen and not as representing his state position, but by all news media accounts and according to his words , “Athens officials have broken several laws” – he went on to contradict his position as a citizen. How can we expect the public to separate the two? That is crazy.”
The school board maintains that they have not done anything wrong and point to a recent opinion by the Alabama Association of School Boards defending the legality of the practice. 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.”
John Wahl, who is a leader of the opposition said, “John Wahl: “I am truly saddened and disappointed by the actions of City School Officials. School resources being used to campaign for a tax increase is bad enough, but to partner with a Special Interest group is simply unbelievable. There are taxpaying voters on both sides of this issue. I don’t see how anyone could think it’s okay to use taxpayer money to support one side or the other…This is disrespectful to the citizens of Athens, the voters, and especially the parents and children going to these schools every day. Using kids as a campaign tool is shameful. Government is supposed to treat each side of a political issue fairly and equally. What kind of example does this set for our children? ”
On Friday State Senator Arthur Orr (R-Decatur) speaking to talk radio host Dale Jackson said that the practice is unfair and said that the legislature should pass legislation to ban taxpayer resources from being used for political activity promoting a referendum.
Both sides are busily trying to sway undecided voters and motivate their supporters to come to the polls today.
Citizens for our Athens City Schools wrote, “As we begin this new week, please encourage your friends and family to Vote Yes Tuesday. Polls will be open from 7:00 a.m. – 7:00 p.m. Our students should have quality facilities to match the exceptional work they do everyday in our schools. Let’ stand together and send a loud message that the residents of Athens will not accept mediocrity for our schools!”
Responding to allegations that the schools would cut teacher units to pay for the capitol improvements, Jack McDaniel said, “The annual revenue is equal to 47 units (teachers and or support personnel). There was not, nor has there been any threats if the tax does not pass. The opposition has been taking questions and comments out of context, and capitalizing on newspapers and editorials that present things out of context.”
On Friday the Stop the Athens Small Business Tax group wrote, “The Vote Yes campaign is almost entirely funded by out-of-town businesses and special interests. Their initial money came entirely from executives of Martin & Cobey Construction, which have multiple large contracts with the city and school board, and would likely receive millions of dollars if the tax passes. This came in the form of one $2,000 donation and two $1,000 donations. The rest of their recorded donations are as follows: Goodwyn Mils & Cawood, Birmingham: $2,500; Limestone Building Group, Tanner: $2,500; Henry Griggs, Athens: $1,000; Carl Hunt, Athens: $500; Switchdesk, Gallatin, TN: $1,000. This means that, out of $12,000 in recorded donations, only $1,500 have come from people that are either 1) not from out of town, or 2) do not have, have had, or are hoping to have a contract with the school board that this tax will pay for.”
Donna McDaniel said, “They have made accusations about our superintendent and school board members, and Yes supporters on Facebook. My husband and I have gotten harassing phone calls every day several times a day from a number that we cannot trace. No one speaks, so we just hang up. Now we are not answering but they continue to call.”
The polls in Athens open at 7:00 am.
Since Governor Robert Bentley has been demanding more state tax dollars to prop up the growing costs of Medicaid and prisons tax referendums have become more politicized; tax referendums have failed in Baldwin, Colbert, Lawrence, and Jackson Counties.