By Larry Lee
School kids make a terrible rope in a political tug of war. Yet too many politicians continue to use education dollars as a hammer to wave over the heads of those who run our schools.
The latest example is Senator Trip Pittman of Baldwin County, former chair of the Senate Finance & Taxation Education committee. (He will chair the Finance & Taxation General Fund committee next session.)
A few weeks ago school systems across the state discovered that when the Education Trust Fund budget was passed this year, someone slipped language in that allowed the new Pike Road system in east Montgomery to get $2.3 million of a $9.6 million allocation referred to as “current units.” This cost 47 other systems $1.2 million. (Pittman’s own Baldwin County system lost $80,946.)
A thorough re-tracing of the progress of the appropriations bill shows the language in question surfaced at some point between a conference committee and final passage.
As would be expected, administrators in those systems who were shortchanged were not happy and it didn’t take long for the media to get wind of what had happened. Reporter Modupe Idowi with Mobile’s WPMI Channel 15 did a story about this on Nov. 24, 2015.
Later that night, Senator Pittman sent an email to John Wilson, Chief Financial Officer of the Baldwin School System that said:
“I increased the funding for current units and then fully funded Pike Road to get a vote to save ETF. If you have a problem with that give me a call. Remember, the Penny can go away. Have a happy Thanksgiving.”
While it is true that funding for this particular appropriation went from $3.8 million in 2015 to $9.6 in 2016, it is still way below the 2008 level of $42.2 million. And while systems are getting more this year than last year, they are still being shortchanged because funds were not distributed equitably.
For example, Baldwin County got $342,081 in current units funding last year and will get $468,088 this year. But without the special treatment for Pike Road, they would have received $549,034.
As to the good senator doing all of this to gain a vote, that’s unclear.. Normally you horse trade on votes when they are tight. However, in this case the appropriations billed passed the senate without a “nay” vote, though perhaps he was referring to something to do with another vote..
But the most damning statement is, “Remember, the Penny can go away.”
Senator Pittman is referring to a one cent sales tax that generates $35 million annually for Baldwin County schools. This supports 151 teachers, 27 teacher aides, 72 bus drivers, 18 counselors and a number of other personnel.
This tax will expire in 2018 unless it is renewed by the local legislative delegation or voted on by the public. As a rule, decisions such as this must be approved unanimously by a legislative delegation. In other words, one objection can kill it.
Baldwin is one of the largest systems in Alabama and one of the fastest growing in the country. They gain the equivalent of a new elementary school per year. (500-600 students) They already have more portable classrooms than all but one other state system. Losing $35 million a year would be catastrophic.
I showed Senator Pittman’s statement to a number of people. To a person, they called it a threat. Which is exactly what it is. If you don’t stop talking about me I will try to put 151 teachers out of a job and who cares if there are 4-50 students in a classroom?
Another attempt by a politician to use school kids as a rope in a political tug of war. And once again, politics comes before kids and schools.
Larry Lee led the study Lessons Learned from Rural Schools and is a longtime advocate for public education. [email protected] Read his blog: larryeducation.com