Mayor Ronnie was fresh back from a week at the beach with his family, and got some much needed rest, save for the traffic on the way back home. It was beastly! This time our chat centered around education, and the expanding needs of students in our area due to the continual growth of our city and county. You will remember that toward the end of the summer, there was plenty of spirited discussion and then a vote put to the people of Athens in regard to building a new high school. As we all know, it was defeated. Mayor Ronnie, as he set forth the options that are now before us to consider ways to fund a new school, reiterated that the people had spoken. “We heard it, we heard the democratic vote” he said, and then asked, “What now?”
It became very apparent when there was the bomb threat made earlier in the Fall at the Middle School, and kids and staff had to be evacuated quickly and safely, that the Middle School has a number of public safety issues that certainly were not something anyone was having to consider when it was built in 1956. “Egress was a nightmare,” he said. Due to the Middle School’s location, that is not something that can be remedied by repair or remodeling, and in the event of an actual bomb could be a huge problem.
One of the things I have come to appreciate about the Mayor is how creatively he responds to challenges, and the kinds of questions he asks when he is in the process of solving problems. I also appreciate that I can ask him questions, and, as always, came away from our time feeling like I had learned something.
What is little known, and I found fascinating, is that there was a random phone poll conducted prior to the August school funding election, and of those surveyed, 70% said they would support the building program that was being proposed. However, they made it very clear that they wanted to have the funding package passed all at once and get it out of the way, rather than have it come in stages. Interestingly, when the election finally came, it was nearly the same percentage of voters who were against it.
Moving forward, there is a bit of confusion that needs to be cleared up in regard to the role that the City Council has in all of this. “The City Council does NOT have the authority, according to Alabama State Law, to vote on a property tax increase,” he said. He then added, “That’s the vote of the people.”
As of now, the Mayor and the City Council are working closely with the Athens Public Schools Finance Department to see what kinds of things can be done to solve the school funding problem. “Basically, we are looking at reducing administrative costs by attrition, looking at the impact that the increase of student population growth will have on state funding made available to us, and exploring how we can best utilize the tax revenue we already have,” he said. It became apparent that we were going to have to talk about this again in much more detail, so we finished laying the foundation for this article, prayed for wisdom for our leaders, and then it was time for Ronnie to roll.
By: Ali Elizabeth Turner