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Section 16 funds still in limbo

With funding issues affecting school systems all over the state, including those in Covington County, more than ever, the current debate over Section 16 funds between the Andalusia City Board of Education, the Opp City Board of Education and the Covington County School System has taken on a renewed importance.

With school systems in the state facing the loss of various personnel and programs due to funding woes, the Opp and Andalusia systems are hoping to receive a share of the Section 16 funds designated for Covington County.

Andalusia Superintendent Pete Kelley and Opp Superintendent Dr. Tim Lull said Thursday, though, that this has not been possible because the Covington County School System is attempting to claim all of the funds as their own.

Kelley said the Section 16 funding was created by Congress as a way of funding schools during the early days of education.

"The income for the sections was set aside to finance schools located in a certain township, then along the way things changed and township lines were abolished in relationship to school lines and city school systems were created," said Kelley. "The money still generated for those Section 16 lands were still coming about. That money prior to approximately 1995 was distributed through the State Department of Education and all the schools in the state from my understanding received money from that and it was all put into one pot."

He said the person who was in charge of overseeing the funds retired, and at the same time the method of funding schools changed.

"As a result (of the funding change) some of the money was not appropriated properly and sat without being used and now the money is available and is being held in court here in Covington County in Judge (Ashley) McKathan's court," said Kelley. "About $8 or $9 million dollars is designated for Covington County. It doesn't say Covington County Schools, it says Covington County."

Kelley said the Covington County School System has interpreted the funds as belonging exclusively to it, adding that the system has hired attorneys and conducted various research. He said the system entered into a lawsuit with the other two systems to keep the money in the county, but now that the money is here, the division of the money has become a subject of much debate.

"(The three systems) share in a lot of things, such as programs, where in Andalusia here we have two programs that students from Andalusia, Opp and the county share in and we share the expense," said Kelley. "There is a one-cent sales tax, and the only sales tax we have in the county, and we share in that. It is the opinion of Andalusia schools that (the Section 16 money) should also be divided fairly. Obviously the county system's attorneys interpret that differently and they believe all the money should go to them. If it was broken down evenly, it would go to every school child in this county. We educate each other's children."

A mediation period has been slated for April 14 and 15, and if the issue is not settled by a mediator, there will be a court hearing on May 19.

"In the past Andalusia City Schools and Opp City Schools entered into an agreement on how the money would be distributed and then we sent it to the Covington County system, and on the advice of their attorneys they refused to sign it," said Kelley. "All we were attempting to do at that time was show solidarity between the school systems and that we all had a vested interest in the students, because we all have needs. (The Covington County system) has not sought to (enter into an agreement with the other two systems), and I'm afraid that the decisions being made (by that system) are building up fences and putting up walls and could cause problems between the communities for a long time. I do not want to see that."

He said the money obviously would greatly help his system.

"(Not gaining any of the money) would hurt," said Kelley. "We are talking about laying off 13 people and then we're telling our faculty and the students now which programs are going to be cut. And they also know something like (the Section 16 dispute) is taking place. Our board would have to decide how to use the funds, but they would definitely help."

Lull echoed the same sentiments.

"I am going to have to lay off 12 teachers, and if this was settled we would not have to do this," said Lull. "The Covington County School Board, though, is the only system that is not allowing this to be settled, however. This issue is definitely having an impact on our students."

He said he and Covington County Superintendent Ronnie Driver speak occasionally, but have not discussed the current dispute in depth due to various reasons, including legal ones.

"We (previously) dialogued back and forth trying to reach an agreement, and when that ended, there was no point (in further discussions about the conflict). I want a peaceful solution to this thing where we can all hold our heads up and see each other again and be friends," said Kelley. "I am, though, adamantly in favor of (settling the issue) the way I think is right, but (the Covington County board) obviously has reasons to think otherwise."

Lull said he has attempted to discuss the issue with Driver for more than a year, and to possibly come to some type of agreement regarding the funds, but to no avail.

"I think (Driver) would like to see this end, but I believe it is their system's attorneys that are not letting this end," said Lull. "This issue needs to come to an end, though."

Driver said he also would like to see the issue resolved in the near future, and in fair fashion for all of the systems involved.

"This is really a complicated issue that affects a lot of counties and cities in this state, and anyone that has Section 16 lands and it is a class-action lawsuit," said Driver. "Now the issue is in the hands of the court and our board wants it to be resolved in accordance with the law."

Driver said if the law means that the system receives more money or less money, then the system is willing to go with what the court says.

"We are not being greedy, and we just want the issue to be handled fairly and in a manner that will be legally binding," said Driver. "I certainly want this to be settled and for us to be able to continue a good relationship (with the other two systems in the county). It just needs to be emphasized that this is really a complicated issue and we just want this to be resolved fairly."