Published: Tuesday, September 28, 2010, 6:52 AM on AL.com
Connie Baggett, Press-Register
(Click here to read the original article on AL.com)
BAY MINETTE, Alabama -- With a successful sales tax campaign done and political clout growing, leaders in the Baldwin County Education Coalition said the group is moving on to its next project: making long-range plans with a reliable funding source for schools.
"I think the most meaningful part of this process so far has been the response we've gotten from participants," said Denise D'Oliveira, one spokeswoman for the initiative. "To sit with people -- all kinds of citizens -- in their homes and churches and listen to them talk about the community they want for their children and grandchildren has been nothing short of inspiring."
Most people just want to be heard, she said, and the talks will help direct the coalition's long-term proposals to school officials. "Given the large number of folks who have participated, we will have a much clearer sense of where we want to go as a community -- with the community being all of Baldwin County -- not just our own neighborhoods," D'Oliveira said.
In dozens of meetings across the county over the past months with parents, teachers and other leaders, coalition members led what they call "community conversations" designed to focus attention on education.
D'Oliveira told a gathering in Bay Minette last week that more than 70 meetings with more than 1,000 people had already taken place by mid-September. The meetings focus on six questions based on a tested public engagement model. The resulting discussions will help the group list priorities for a "community agreement."
Once the meetings wrap up in October, the coalition will formulate the agreement and present it to the Baldwin County Board of Education in December as a tool to help guide long-range planning.
The coalition of the seven education foundations in the county formed in September 2009 as the worst recession since the Great Depression left the Baldwin County Public School finances in shambles. The system serving some 28,000 students lost more than $61 million in state and local funding over a two-year period. Responding to the financial pressure, the system shed hundreds of employees including teachers and cut popular programs. Board members voted to close two schools. Superintendent Faron Hollinger left in December, a year before the end of his contract.
The foundations representing each feeder pattern include South Baldwin Chamber Foundation, North Baldwin Coalition for Excellence in Education, Supporting Educational Enrichment in Daphne Schools, Central Baldwin Education Foundation, Alabama Gulf Coast Area Education Enrichment Foundation, Fairhope Educational Enrichment Foundation and Spanish Fort Educational Enrichment Foundation.
Despite a down economy, voters approved a 3-year, 1-percent sales tax in March to help bridge the financial gap and save hundreds of additional layoffs.
Newly appointed Superintendent Alan Lee took the helm of the system in July and started restructuring management.
The coalition meetings follow the "Yes We Can" model developed in Mobile County in 2001 when voters there supported the first property tax increase for schools in 40 years.
In the meetings, leaders ask those who attend to answer questions like "What kind of community do we want to live in?" and "What do we want public schools to be like?" among others. Answers from one community to the other are strikingly similar, coalition members said.
Parents want strong teachers with ongoing professional development, some said, and they want better communication with administrators both in local schools and in the central office. They want openness and challenging curriculum with logical ties to industry and business in the area. They want aggressive economic development, and community pride. Parents want all students in the county to have the same opportunities to achieve, according to feedback from various meetings.
One main challenge listed for the county was funding. Parents agreed that local and statewide education funding needs to come from a more stable source than sales tax.
Education funding in Alabama comes primarily from income taxes and sales taxes, both of which can be erratic revenue streams. Baldwin schools also depend heavily on sales taxes for local funding, so the economic downturn hit the system hard.
Several at the Bay Minette meeting agreed that sales taxes need to be lowered and property taxes increased for schools.
Overall, D'Oliveira said, people want excellent schools and greater accountability and the move to secure reliable funding for schools is advancing statewide.
Terry Burkle, who leads the Central Baldwin Chamber foundation, said planning and holding the evening meetings have been hectic, but worth the effort.
"Everyone wants the same thing: the very best for our children," Burkle said. "And the best way to achieve our aspirations is by working in solidarity."