Will state#039;s schools close on Oct. 1?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 18, 2003

Might the opening of schools this fall depend on whether Gov. Bob Riley's revenue and accountability plan receives a "yes" from state voters, or will a threatened closing of public schools simply be a last resort.

Riley's revenue and accountability plan, which he has titled "Laying the Foundation for Greatness," has already been the subject of much debate and numerous polls and will come before state voters to accept or reject on Sept. 9 in a referendum.

Much of the discussion about Riley's tax plan, with initial polls indicating that the plan would not be approved by voters, centers on how it might aide financially-crippled school systems, and whether it might eliminate the need to cut quality teachers or programs.

Adding to the debate about the tax plan and its possible effect on education is the fact that State Superintendent of Education Ed Richardson, formerly of Andalusia, told public school superintendents on Friday, June 13 that he will shut down all public schools Oct. 1 if voters reject the Riley tax plan and if lawmakers do not adopt an education budget.

A recent poll, however, showed that 51 percent of state voters now oppose the plan and that 39 percent are in favor of it.

While the plan has its share of opponents, two people strongly in favor of the plan are Andalusia City Schools Superintendent Pete Kelley and Opp City Schools Superintendent Dr. Tim Lull, who have both had to address severe financial problems with their respective systems by axing qualified teachers and support staff personnel.

"I really respect Governor Riley for his leadership in wanting to move this state forward," said Kelley. "He is committed to having a first class education system for our children and grandchildren."

Lull said he likewise appreciates the fact that it appears Riley has put much consideration into the plan.

"The plan is well thought out and it is the best opportunity to change funding for education that has occurred in my 29-year career."

Main proposals relating to education included in the plan include:

Performance-based contracts for new school administrators, supervisors and financial personnel instead of the current tenure system.

Streamlining the job protection of tenure for teachers and support workers to require people appealing their firings to use arbitration as a final step rather than the courts.

Paying more to teachers of math and science to those willing to move to schools that have a hard time attracting teachers.

College scholarships provided to students able and willing to fill those math and science needs upon graduation.

Changing the way local school systems appoint and remove the custodians of funds, to ensure competency.

Kelley said

he feels the Alabama Business Council, the State Department of Education and other groups will begin promoting the plan more aggressively in the near future and said the reporting of Richardson's threat to close the schools may have been overblown somewhat.

"I was at the meeting when Dr. Richardson talked about the possibility of closing schools," said Kelley. "He said that this would take place as a last resort, only if a budget was not passed by Sept. 30. He did not say that schools would close unless the tax passed. It is my understanding that a special session would be called on Sept. 10 to deal with the budgets whether the referendum passes or not."

Both Kelley and Lull said they remain hopeful that the plan will be passed.

"I am hopeful that this will be supported by the voters," said Kelley. "We have an opportunity to provide the necessary support for our children and other state agencies."

Lull said he agrees with Kelley, and in fact said he plans to work diligently to make sure the approval of the plan comes to fruition.

"I support the plan and will work tirelessly to help get it passed," said Lull. "I hope that the citizens of Alabama will vote to do the right thing as Christians to see that we do not continue to place the unfair burden of taxation on the poor."

Lull added that the plan would greatly enhance his system's ability to provide the most quality teachers possible for its students.

"It will provide similar staffing that the wealthier systems have," said Lull. "This staffing will further provide a better learning environment for our children. It will provide funding for the continuous upgrading of facilities that the wealthier systems enjoy."

Kelley said the plan would provide myriad benefits for the Andalusia system.

"(The plan would aide) in providing enough funds for textbooks, reading programs, technology equipment, computers, transportation and facility upgrades," said Kelley. "These and other areas where we are not adequately funded (would be helped). If the tax package passes, it will be five years before it is fully funded. If there has to be a Plan B (should the plan not pass) I do not know what that will be."

Lull said if the plan does not meet the ultimate approval from state voters, local communities and systems are looking at very critical decisions down the road.

"If the plan does not pass, education and economic opportunities for small Alabama communities will move to states where the population is committed to academic excellence," said Lull. "Local communitieswill be forced to make decisions about whether to raise revenues at the local level."

The uncertainty about whether the plan will pass or not has left superintendents such as Kelley and Lull in the position to basically conduct business in the event of the worst-case scenario.

"We have to make decisions based on the amount of money that we know is available, not on the intentions of well-meaning groups in Montgomery," said Lull. "Our local revenues are significantly lower than they were three years ago. We are being level funded at levels $350,000 lower than three years ago. We have had to lower the number of teachers paid for from local funds in order to survive the financial insecurity. This will cause the number of students in each classroom to increase with the ultimate impact being less personal attention for each student."

Kelley said his system is also being "very conservative" in the approach to its FY04 budget.