Schools face loss of millions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, August 31, 2002

Local school systems in Covington County, including the Covington County Board of Education, and Opp and Andalusia school systems, are monitoring the progress of a lawsuit recently filed against the state.

The Covington County BOE filed a lawsuit on August 21 in an attempt to prevent state officials from spending approximately $38 million from the sale and lease of local school funds, as called for by a new state law aimed at easing school budgets.

The $38 million in question was raised through sales, leases, timber-cutting and mineral income on land designated for local schools.

The legislature had passed a bill in April allowing Gov. Don Siegelman to use the money from school land sales and another $46.1 million from three other sources to help offset sagging revenues in education.

Out of this $38 million, about $8.2 million is owed by the state to the Covington County BOE and the city systems of Opp and Andalusia.

Opp School System Superintendent Dr. Timothy Lull said he obviously will be watching the progress of the lawsuit very intensely and said the participation of his system was a necessity.

"Due to the special nature of the lawsuit, Opp had to be named a participant," said Lull. "There is a specific number of dollars involved, and in order to stop the governor from using this money a lawsuit had to be filed and that both the

Opp and Andalusia systems had a vested interest in the proceedings."

Lull said he hopes that the lawsuit does not present a negative perception of the relationship between the Opp and Andalusia school systems.

"In spite of the wording of the lawsuit,

(the Andalusia and Opp systems) are not in an adversarial situation with each other," said Lull. "Some may think that we are fighting each other trying to get the money. We are all committed to educating our students to the best of our abilities."

Lull said laws were originally written so that money would come directly to school systems, adding funds were supposed to go into a trust.

"Had the funds gone into a trust like they were meant to be, we would be sitting on millions of dollars from the interest and we are not sitting on a million dollars," said Lull. "As far as how (the money in question for the lawsuit) will impact the Opp School System, if the money would go into a trust, money could be used to fund music or art teachers, but if the money was to go through (Alabama Public School and College Authority or PSCA funds), the money would be specified strictly for facility improvements. My mind frame, though, is that the money should be marked for education and for the kids and not for facilities."

Andalusia Schools Superintendent Pete Kelley said he has been watching the matter closely for a couple of months and said the lawsuit was filed strictly out of concern for the students.

"(Many people) do not fully understands this matter, and how the money was supposed to be divided," said Kelley. "This (money) will really help students in all three systems, and with proration all of the systems are strapped for funds right now. The funds would really help us all out."

Considering the priority of providing the best type of education possible for students, Kelley said he feels that the lawsuit was the only option in the matter.

"I think (the lawsuit) has brought attention to the issue to people in Montgomery," said Kelley.

As far as how the funds would impact his school system, he said facility improvements would be the main objective.

"Right now, facilities are out greatest need," said Kelley. "We are looking to re-roof Andalusia Middle School and we need a new heating and cooling unit also for the middle school. At Andalusia High School we had a boiler system condemned and we are looking at a lighting project there. We are also going to have to plan for a roofing project at (AHS) so that is about $1.25 million that has to be spent right there."

Covington County Circuit Judge M. Ashley McKathan has ordered that state officials not spend the $38 million, and his temporary order is good until a preliminary hearing scheduled to be held Tuesday, Sept. 3.

At this particular hearing, McKathan could order the money to remain frozen until the matter comes to trial.

The suit filed on Aug. 21 names Siegelman, Finance Director Henry Mabry, State Treasurer Lucy Baxley, State Comptroller Robert Childree and State School Superintendent Ed Richardson as defendants.