RCS breaks tuition policy down to facts, figures

It’s been nearly a month now since Russellville City Schools announced its plan to limit out-of-district students to those who are willing to pay the new tuition rate. Although Superintendent Heath Grimes said feedback to the new policy – approved unanimously by the Board of Education – has been overwhelmingly positive, he knows there are some who still have doubts and questions.

“I know there’s uncertainty, and I feel for those people,” Grimes said.

Perhaps the greatest number of questions center on the numbers involved in the discussion. From enrollment to tuition rate, the numbers have played a big part in the discussion and decision. “From a business standpoint … it’s a policy that makes sense for us,” Grimes said.

The number that immediately comes to mind for most, of course, is $600 – the yearly tuition rate for out-of-district students. Though some have challenged the rate as being too high, and others have said the number was set arbitrarily, Grimes said long discussion went into what tuition rate should be approved. As part of its discussion, one of the board’s considerations was comparing to the tuition rates for out-of-district students in neighboring school systems – namely Muscle Shoals and Hartselle, which are both at $500.

“We think our school system is as good as either one of those,” Grimes said. Through conversation with those systems, Grimes said Hartselle and Muscle Shoals shared they felt like their rate was too low. With that in mind, RCS settled on a higher rate, with the intent to avoid having to increase the rate in the space of just a few years.

The rate also represents the bottom of the scale of what in-district families pay in ad valorem (property) taxes that go to the school system.

Of course, finances were an integral driver behind this new policy, from multiple angles. One accusation has been the observation that Russellville City Schools waited until after the vote for the 1 percent sales tax – 75 percent of which is split between Franklin County Schools and Russellville City Schools – to announce the policy. The community voted to renew the 1 percent sales tax March 1.

Grimes, however, said if anything, RCS held off on the announcement until after the vote as a consideration to the Franklin County School system – not to protect itself.

“The tax money is going to follow the students, so if we lose 100, 200, 400 students, Franklin County Schools are going to get (that tax money),” Grimes said. “All those students will take a percentage of the money with them.”

Presently, RCS gets 44 percent of the 75 percent of the 1-cent sales tax. The percentage that goes to each school system is determined by the number of students in the system – which means, for RCS, “we will lose money,” with the loss of out-of-district students, Grimes reiterated.

“We want to do the right thing for the county and for all involved,” Grimes said.  “With the loss of the students, the tax money does not stay with us.” He said the board tried to be cognizant of what was fair for Franklin County Schools; that, with an influx of students, the county school system would be even more dependent upon the 1-cent sales tax.

Grimes said he knows the tuition rate seems high to some, but imposing a more reduced rate  – or grandfathering in all current students, rather than just rising 8th through 12th graders – would not help solve the overcrowding issues the school system is facing.

“Enrollment would continue to bubble. We would have to build buildings or move into portables in the next year. We would get no more revenue, aside from $600 from maybe 20 new students in kindergarten. So it wouldn’t have any impact on the finances.”

It wouldn’t fix the problems the RCS is trying to address. Those problems, Grimes said, can’t wait that long for a solution.

Ultimately, “We think we have quality education. We think it’s worth $600,” Grimes said.

Of course, it’s fair to say that finances are primarily an issue because of the enrollment issue. The tuition policy, then, is designed to accomplish one or both of two objectives: bring in enough money to provide the facilities needed or reduce enrollment enough that expanded facilities are no longer warranted.

Because building facilities is no cheap or easy task.

To obtain the size of loan needed to build the minimum facilities that would be needed to accommodate RCS’ current student population – $9 million at the bare minimum just to tack on a couple classrooms; $20-30 million to build a new school – lending institutions require a permanent revenue source that is not earmarked for any other purpose. The 1-cent sales tax, Grimes said, doesn’t meet the requirement of a permanent revenue source, since it must be re-voted on every two years.

“They’re going to require that you have a revenue source that is unmarked – not obligated to anything else,” Grimes said. “It can’t be in your budget. It has to untapped toward any other loans or bonds.”

The school system has taken criticism for approving a loan to upgrade the high school’s football field and track in almost the same breath as it explained it would have to charge tuition to out-of-district students, but Grimes said that’s a complete different discussion.

The loan for the athletic upgrades – small by comparison to $20-30 million for a new school building – is easily obtainable through the school system’s collateral. Additionally, the track – which is used by the community as well as the school system – has become a liability, bubbling up in places. Since the time to fix the track has to be now, the time to upgrade the football field is also, more conveniently and responsibly, now. The upgrade, Grimes said, is needed for Russellville to stay competitive with comparable schools.

“People come into our stadium, and we’re proud of what we have here,” Grimes said. “Muscle Shoals has the synthetic turf; Cullman has the turf … These are people we play on Friday night. These are people we are comparable to and want to be like.”

“We want to be the leaders,” Grimes added. “We feel like we’re as strong as they are, and we want to be viewed that way.”

Adding the synthetic turf, Grimes said, will provide accessibility for community events, flag football, youth soccer and more – even during high school football season. If the school board were to repair the track now – at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars – and then try to go back in and put in the turf in a few years, the track would have to be ripped up in the process.

“We didn’t do it from a selfish standpoint. We were trying to be responsible with people’s money and not have to tear up the track we’d just built,” Grimes said. “For us, it’s a wise decision.”

So being able to afford new construction for the school system would require a stable, permanent income source – such as tuition fees. Come August, if the school board sees that expanded facilities are still a need, Grimes said the wheels could begin turning toward a new school or a school expansion.

Current enrollment is at 2,700 – a third of those being out-of-district students – with a system capacity of 2,400. Average growth in Russellville City Schools over the last five years is 65 students per year, Grimes said, which includes one year when no growth took place. It’s this growth that has made the new policy necessary.

“All the pieces fit together. If you remove the tuition, you’re not guaranteeing you could build. Then you would have to start putting quotas on how many students you could take. And we don’t want that,” Grimes said. “We want to accept anybody who wants to be here. We want to be able to do that through the revenue source that it’s going to generate. It’s such a balance – you can’t have one without the other.”

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