Gulf Shores school split likely headed for legal battle

Baldwin County disagrees with state’s division of funding between county, Gulf Shores systems


The separation of the Baldwin County School System and Gulf Shores City School System appears to be headed into a legal battle, as Baldwin County Schools officials have objected to funding distribution issues handed down by the state superintendent.

Alarmed by what Baldwin County Schools staff said could be a potential $7 million loss in revenue if the agreement was signed as is, the Baldwin County Board of Education declined to ratify the agreement at its Jan. 17 meeting, but did authorize its superintendent to take all actions necessary to protect the interests of the Baldwin County School System, including litigation.

State superintendent’s letter

On Jan. 16, State Superintendent Eric Mackey sent the letter to Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler and Gulf Shores Superintendent Matt Akin outlining his ideas for how the settlement agreement should be finalized.

“Since your mutually agreed upon timeline for completion in October, I have carefully considered all the correspondence and documents provided by your respective counsels as well as the various agreement made by and among you and your staff members,” Mackey wrote. “Furthermore, my staff has dedicated countless hours reviewing documents and providing for an on-site informal mediation designed to resolved the few remaining issues you each identified. Although I had confidence that each side would resolve these remaining issues, unfortunately, this was not accomplished.”

Mackey wrote that he drafted the agreement attached “in order to move forward so that the parents, students, staff and the communities may start to make meaningful plans for the upcoming school year.”

Mackey wrote that he expected both school boards to execute the final settlement no later than Jan. 18.

The sticking point in Mackey’s agreement for the Baldwin County School System was how Mackey allocated the funding distribution.

According to the agreement, the state will divide the Foundation Program allocation money for the months of June through September 2019 for Baldwin County and distribute the Gulf Shores City System its pro rata share of those funds for those months for payroll obligation for employees.

Mackey’s agreement also decrees that beginning June 1, the Gulf Shores City System will receive a share of the 2 percent sales and use tax funds raised by the county.

Several of the other determinations in Mackey’s final agreement were already released in late December, which included:

- Upcoming juniors and seniors will remain in their existing feeder pattern and attend Gulf Shores High School.

- Upcoming kindergarten through ninth grade students who live outside of the Gulf Shores city limits will attend Orange Beach schools.

- Upcoming sophomores will be given a choice of which school to attend next year.

“Any students outside the municipal limits, Baldwin County is responsible for, unless an upcoming tenth grader elects to attend Gulf Shores,” Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler said, which includes students in Fort Morgan and other non-city residential areas currently part of the Gulf Shores feeder pattern.

Seventh through tenth grade students in Orange Beach will be housed in a temporary portable classroom campus for the 2019-2020 school year, as the new Orange Beach middle/high school is not due to be completed until June 2020.

- Any teachers or other personnel currently employed in the Gulf Shores schools who wish to continue employment with BCBE shall request a transfer to another school subject to BCBE policy.

- In addition to transfer requests, natural attrition through retirements, resignations, and on-renewals will alleviate some pressure for teacher units and other personnel.

- After choice and natural attrition, if there remains a statistical disparity between the pro rata shares assigned to either the GSBE or the BCBE, the teachers shall be awarded their school system of choice in order of seniority until the respective pro rata shares are achieved. 

- Any other remaining personnel not contemplated herein shall be treated as addressed above.

- Any employment contract involving principals as of the date of this document shall be honored by the BCBE consistent with all the terms and conditions of said contracts.

- GSBE will be responsible to select and contract with its own principals.

- A June 1 start date for the official split between the systems.

Eddie Tyler’s comments

The Baldwin County System held a press conference Thursday afternoon to discuss Mackey’s agreement, with Tyler saying there were a number of issues in that agreement he and the system disagreed with.

“There are a lot of issues to disagree with in his letter, but the most glaring is that the state superintendent directs some $7 million in Baldwin County revenue from this school year to a school system that has no students enrolled for this school year - while also directing us to pay all of the expenses through the end of this school year,” Tyler said. “I cannot fully express the negative financial impact this will have upon Baldwin County families and taxpayers.”

Tyler said his system has been called obstructionistic in the negotiation process, which he feels couldn’t be further from the truth.

“We are not,” Tyler said. “Our disagreement is over money, which belongs to the Baldwin County taxpayers and not Gulf Shores.”

BCBE Board President Cecil Christenberry said he and other board members had several concerns about the potential impact the funding issue could cause.

“That directive has the potential to do a lot of harm to what we’ve been working so hard to do for education in this county,” Christenberry said. “We’re sorry Gulf Shores has decided to leave us, but we have the rest of the county and an obligation to live up to for them.”

Baldwin County Chief Financial Officer John Wilson said Mackey’s directive on funding is a large cause for concern to the county system.

“It’s taking $7 million out of Baldwin County this school year, which will certainly bring a level of instability,” Wilson said. “We’re still trying to quantify what this will mean.”

When asked if Mackey had provided any rationale or explanation into his thought processes in dividing the funding, Wilson said none had been given.

“We asked over and over again for them to help make us understand your thought process is,” Wilson said. “I have no idea what the thought process is, and still don’t right now.”

When asked if the loss in funding could impact coming construction projects, including the new Belforest Elementary School and a recently announced addition to Fairhope Intermediate School, Baldwin County Schools officials said that was yet to be determined.

Baldwin County officials said they were also concerned that Mackey’s decision in this case, if it stands, could set precedent for the allocation of state foundation funds across the rest of the state.

“I think there’s a lot of concern for the state as a whole,” Wilson said. “This sets a very dangerous precedent going forward.”

Gulf Shores’ reaction

At a special called meeting later Thursday afternoon, the Gulf Shores City School Board unanimously passed Mackey’s separation agreement as is, and they questioned some of Baldwin County’s reactions to that agreement.

“At this point, I think the dispute is between Baldwin County and the state superintendent, so I think the state superintendent will determine how that works out,” Gulf Shores Superintendent Akin said.

Akin said the approximation of one month’s salary for system employees was around $1 million.

“We don’t know the exact amount because we don’t know exactly how many teachers we will have,” Akin said. “Whatever that number is, the state department will determine it and say ‘Gulf Shores, here’s your money to pay the teachers who were employed last school year and are now employed with you.’”

With regard to the disbursement of tax revenues, Akin said he felt the state superintendent did what was legally required.

“We feel, and evidently the state superintendent feels, that state law requires those taxes to come to us once we take over as a school system,” Akin said. “It’s money that is rightfully and legally required to go to Gulf Shores. We think that’s about $2 million for four months.”

Gulf Shores School Board President Kevin Corcoran said the accusation of inequity in the funding matter by Baldwin County was debatable.

“The difference we see is that they’re feel they’re okay with the June 1 start date provided that tax revenue doesn’t start flowing our way until Oct. 1,” Corcoran said. “During those four months, Baldwin County will receive $40 million in education sales tax revenue. Of that $40 million, Gulf Shores sales tax collections are approximately $6 million. In the best of circumstances for Gulf Shores City Schools, we’ll receive $2 million of those funds for that amount they’re currently not in agreement that we should receive.”

Corcoran said that amount was a significant portion of the new system’s budget.

“$2 million is 11 percent of our budget,” Corcoran said. “$2 million in Baldwin County is 0.6 percent of their budget.”

Akin added that the Gulf Shores system would also assume over $10 million in debt attached to the existing school buildings within the city.

Baldwin County Board of Education meeting

At the same time as the Gulf Shores City System meeting, the Baldwin County Board of Education met for its regular meeting.

Board members did not bring up Mackey’s agreement for a vote but did have several comments about the impact his decision could have on the system.

“I’m sad for our education system,” Board Member Norma Lynch, who currently represents Gulf Shores and Orange Beach on the Baldwin County Board, said. “I don’t feel like students were put first. I’m sad that decisions were made that don’t look at the big picture and don’t look at precedent.”

BCBE Vice President JaNay Dawson agreed.

“We have to continue to do the right thing for our students, even if it means having to stand up,” Dawson said.

Board Member Shannon Cauley, who has been part of the BCBE’s school split negotiation team, said she felt angered by Mackey’s decree.

“We are fighting for those students who don’t have a voice and can’t speak up,” Cauley said. “The possibility of losing this money is not something any of us is okay with. This is one of the main reasons why we have got to protect our students, our school system and speak up for our taxpayers who give to us. This is why we’re doing this. It’s not to fight Gulf Shores. We want them to succeed, but we also have a responsibility to the children of Baldwin County.”

The board unanimously passed its resolution to express objections to Mackey’s version of the settlement agreement and pursue possible legal action against the state if necessary.