More staff, more STEAM, more support: How the three-mill tax is helping Baldwin schools get ahead

By Jessica Vaughn
Education Editor
jessica@gulfcoastmedia.com
Posted 9/1/22

When school began, so did her tantrums.The first day of school can be a challenge for kindergarteners, including one new student at Fairhope West Elementary who struggled a few weeks ago when she …

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More staff, more STEAM, more support: How the three-mill tax is helping Baldwin schools get ahead

Part-time aides and behavior coaches join teachers in classrooms, assisting with younger children adjusting to the return to school.
Part-time aides and behavior coaches join teachers in classrooms, assisting with younger children adjusting to the return to school.
Jessica Vaughn / Gulf Coast Media
Posted

When school began, so did her tantrums.

The first day of school can be a challenge for kindergarteners, including one new student at Fairhope West Elementary who struggled a few weeks ago when she entered her first classroom. She cried. She wasn't adjusting to the new routine, and her disruptions were affecting her fellow classmates.

In the past, it would have been on her teacher's shoulders to balance teaching while helping the little girl transition to school life.

But, thanks to the three-mill tax Fairhope has in place, her teacher has help now, said Julie Pierce, principal of Fairhope West Elementary School.

"Because of our three-mill money, we have a behavior coach who is designing a plan to manage these situations," she said. "The three-mill money has also provided an extra person, a behavior interventionalist, and so between the two of them, less than two weeks after school began this child is coming to school happy and adjusting.

"Had it not been for those two extra sets of hands, it would all be up to that teacher working with all those students," Pierce said. "And, of course, we would have been there to support her, so this is freeing us up to take on school-wide vision casting activities."

WHAT IS THE THREE-MILL TAX?

In September 2019, voters in the municipalities of Fairhope and Spanish Fort approved an alternative school funding source: a three-mill tax. The city of Robertsdale followed in 2021, with its vote to create the new tax narrowly passing 853 supporting versus 832 against. Daphne voters approved the program on Tuesday.

The approvals mean extra money stays in those city's schools to help those city's students. It allows local educators to put programs in place that state and federal funding doesn't support or in some cases doesn't allow.

"This is a unique program. It's one of a kind in the state of Alabama and allows communities to be more involved in a lot of the financial decision-makings of the schools in their tax district," said John Wilson, chief financial officer for Baldwin County Board of Education. "Only the citizens in the tax district pay it, and the proceeds are only used in the schools in that tax district."

The extra money helps bolster school accounts when income tax amounts fluctuate year to year.

"In Alabama, we fund our schools based on income taxes," Pierce said. "When income taxes are up, things are good in Alabama. When income taxes are down, then things aren't so good. This type of three-mill funding helps to stabilize because property values are not going to fluctuate like income tax does, and that's the beauty of having a school funding based on property taxes."

HOW DOES IT WORK?

All money raised is used in the feeder pattern where it is collected. As part of the agreement, BCBE cannot cut funding from income taxes for schools in districts that raise their own mill tax.

"The board of education is not allowed to spend one cent until it has been fully approved by the local committee," Wilson said. "The funds have got to be used for an educational purpose, and we evaluate the requests first to make sure they aren't duplicating a countywide initiative, and to make sure they're not requesting anything that's not in compliance to what the funds can be used for."

Requests outline a description of what the funds will be used for, the educational value of the request, how it will be incorporated into academic models and the estimated cost.

Principals present data to committee members detailing results seen from tutors and interventionalists. Fund use requests can be viewed on BCBE agendas.

HOW LONG IS IT IN EFFECT, AND HOW MUCH DOES IT RAISE?

In Fairhope, the tax was voted to be in effect for 30 years, the maximum time allowed under the tax amendment. In Spanish Fort, the tax was voted to be in effect for 10 years. Central Baldwin's tax was voted into effect for eight years, which coincides with the renewal schedule for the Spanish Fort tax.

When created, it was estimated the funds would average about $350,000 a year for each school in the Fairhope district, roughly $2 million total. Currently, Fairhope schools are receiving approximately $400,000 each a year.

Spanish Fort's tax is expected to raise approximately $800,000.

In Central Baldwin, the tax is projected to generate $700,000-$750,000 per year to be divided between feeder schools. Within its first year, that total is expected to reach approximately $1 million a year to be divided among each school due to population growth in the area.

WHO DECIDES HOW FUNDS ARE USED?

With each approval, each city council established a school commission for its area. These committees oversee the distribution of money collected.

However, the entire process is a team effort.

What is needed within each individual school is first decided upon and discussed within those schools. Principals often meet with their staff to determine a wish list. Requests are drafted and presented to Wilson for review.

If approved, the principals then submit their requests to the committee members. During monthly meetings, committees review requests for approval or denial. School principals are often present during these meetings to discuss their requests, including their reasons behind them and how they intend to use the funds.

If approved, the request moves to the final stage: the Baldwin County Board of Education, which votes to approve or deny.

WHAT'S BEING PURCHASED?

No two schools' purchases look alike, even among campuses within the same district. Schools are able to access the needs within their own school and formulate requests based on those needs.

In all districts, one thing is common: extra hands are needed.

"Baldwin County gives us a ton of resources, and resources are wonderful," Pierce said. "Baldwin County has really begun to pour resources into the school; but people are more expensive. You can have all these wonderful resources, but if you don't have enough people to use all of them, then it becomes difficult."

Pierce said with the addition of interventionalists and coaches, such as the behavior coach and a STEAM coach, teachers are able to use the extra help within their classrooms, giving them more time to focus on teaching students.

At Robertsdale High, where the funds were released in July, a major focus will be materials for an improved STEAM lab.

"We want to put some money there so our kids get every advantage that they could possibly need," Principal Joe Sharp said. "I know that most of the elementary schools in our feeder pattern are spending some of their money in STEAM, which is exciting since we've got our program in the high school. These kids will learn about STEAM in elementary school, go through Central Baldwin, and then the high school, having a STEAM experience for hopefully K through 12."

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