School funding still hot topic in city

By Staff
Jonathan Willis
Two years after changing the way the city gives local funds to the school system, school funding is still a major issue heading into next week's municipal elections.
In the fall of 2006, the Russellville City Council voted to stop funding to the city schools, which totaled more than $1.2 million that year.
The council and school board quickly reached an agreement that reinstated level funding of $1 million annually to the system.
But Superintendent Dr. Wayne Ray said that figure was not supposed to be a permanent agreement and if the system does not begin receiving funds based on a formula previously used in the city, the system will fall further behind.
"Historically city councils never saw fit to take money away from the schools," Ray said.
According to Ray, the city voted in 1968 to levy a one-cent sales tax. Of that number, 65 percent went to the school system to use on bonds and indebtedness.
He said that by 1977 the portion of that cent began to grow.
"The council passed a resolution to pay the schools the excess for general operations," Ray said.
The amount paid to the system over the years was based on formulas using ad valorem and sales tax figures.
Ray said that when the council cut the funding in 2006, the amount going to the schools had reached $1.2 million.
"When they capped it at $1 million it cuts off any growth in the future," he said. "All we want is the formula that we had back."
Ray said the system is the only one in northwest Alabama to be losing local funding. Reports from the state department of education show that local funding per student in Russellville dropped by over $100 from fiscal year 2004 until 2006. That number is expected to drop even more.
Councilman Craig Grissom, who voted against cutting the funding in the council's 2006 vote, said Ray agreed to the $1 million level funding.
"He said it was a number he could live with," Grissom said. "What we did was give them a level figure so they always knew what they would have. They were getting a percentage of sales tax, so when times are good, they do good, when they aren't, they don't do good."
Councilman Burns "Buckshot" Saint said the $1 million given to the school system is after the city pays the system's bond payments.
"The school board agreed they could live with the $1 million," Saint said.
Councilman David Kennedy said that increases in sales tax revenue generally means the city is growing, so other services also need more funding.
"We also have to keep the police department, fire department, street department and parks and recreation departments going," Kennedy said.
"We tried to give the schools a figure that they said they could live with but one that would also allow us to help the rest of the city."
Ray contends that the city's 2006 action cost the school system about $1.3 million.
"If we had that this year we wouldn't have cut one employee," he said.
Another issue Ray worries about is federal funding which is based on what local funds a system has.
He said that if the city had not reinstated the $1 million in local funds in 2006, the federal government would have cut another $1.5 million.
"What they did could have a long negative impact on this system that so many people have worked hard to make what it is," Ray said.
Kennedy said Ray agreed to the $1 million funding in 2006, but has since changed his stance.
"Since then, while the city continued funding the school system, Dr. Ray has constructed a multi-million dollar superintendent's office and started construction on a $1 million baseball complex and jumbotron at the football stadium," he said.
"My question is, is the citizens of Russellville's funding not enough or is Dr. Ray spending too much," Kennedy said. "It sounds to me that he wants a hand picked mayor and council that will do everything he wants."
Ray said capital building project funds couldn't be used for any other purpose.
"Why should we just say 'no, we don't want it, let somebody else have it," Ray said.
"Our students deserve the best of everything we can get for them. That's been the thoughts of every city council in Russellville for 40 years, until now."
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