Informational forum held for residents ahead of special election to determine future of Chelsea schools

Photo Credit: Facebook, City of Chelsea Alabama

As the date of Chelsea’s July 12 property tax vote draws closer, residents are still voicing their opinions about the possibility of the city separating from Shelby County Schools and forming an independent school system. Residents have been divided on the topic. Dozens of citizens attended a community forum at the Chelsea Community Center on June 9.

According to the Shelby County Reporter, on May 3, the Chelsea City Council passed a proposed ordinance to set the July 12 election, in which the city’s residents will vote on whether to allow the city to levy and collect a 12.5-mill property tax to fund a Chelsea city school system and facility improvements.

Mayor Tony Picklesimer and Councilmembers Scott Weygand, Chris Grace, and Tiffany Bittner voted in favor of the ordinance. Councilmembers Cody Sumners and Casey Morris voted against it.

Currently, Chelsea is one of only three municipalities in Shelby County that only pays property tax to the county and is void of a municipal property tax.

Kim McPherson, CPA with Criterion Consulting, the firm Chelsea authorized to conduct a school system feasibility study last year, was present to answer questions and clarify information included in the study.

Weygand presented an overview of the plans if the vote was in favor of the tax, and said the budget laid out in the study with 2019 revenue and expenses shows the city school system would be feasible.

“In the feasibility study, Criterion suggested 11 mills of property tax based on 2019 numbers,” Weygand stated. “The July 12 vote is for 12.5 mills based on updated numbers from 2021. What that means to us is that millage can go further and can do more.”

Weygand said the institution of a 12.5-mill city property tax would fund the state-required one-month operating reserve of roughly $2.1 million in less than a year. After that, the city would channel the funds into major construction projects, and other educational enhancements.

Non-Chelsea residents would be expected to pay an equivalent fee to the 12.5-mill tax, if it passes, to the Chelsea Board of Education if their students wanted to attend Chelsea schools.

“The opportunity is in front of us now. It’s about us as a community being able to rally behind our students to simply do better,” Councilwoman Bittner commented. “Shelby County Board of Education has said they do not have a plan to make improvements to our schools that are needed. The other side says there’s a better way. The truth is, there’s not another way right now. This is our one opportunity to have local control of funding through a separate Chelsea city school board that stands on its own.”

In April, Councilmen Sumners and Morris introduced an alternative proposal that does not involve an additional property tax and would allow the city to partner with the Shelby County Board of Education to address the immediate needs of the schools in Chelsea.

Their proposal calls for the city to leverage the current 1-cent education sales tax in the bond market for improvements and renovations at the schools in the Chelsea city limits. The schools would still belong to the Shelby County Board of Education, and they would still make regularly-scheduled upgrades.

Also, all additional funds from the city of Chelsea bonds would be used for additional upgrades and renovations to the current schools to address concerns and needs. A citizen board would be created to determine the needs and priorities of the schools in order to prioritize projects for the schools in Chelsea.

The Shelby County Reporter shared some of the following questions at the forum:

• Whether school resource officers are included in the proposed budget.

• Whether paraprofessionals and services for students with special needs would be prioritized.

• Whether the student-teacher ratio would be lower if Chelsea forms its own school system.

• Whether teacher salaries would be higher under a city school system.

• Whether a Chelsea city school system would improve student outcomes and education.

• Why money generated by the 1-cent sales tax is not being used on immediate needs at the schools in Chelsea.

• Concerns about school system employees being displaced if the city forms its own school system.

• Concerns about elderly residents on fixed incomes affording an additional property tax, especially in a challenging economy.

• Concerns about Chelsea continuing to meet the needs of its first responders and other city services if it forms a city school system.

Mayor Picklesimer stated that SROs would continue to be covered in the budget.

McPherson said paraprofessionals are included as “instruction assistants” in the proposed budget, and that services for students with special needs are protected by law.

Regarding student-teacher ratios, McPherson explained that lowering the ratio for different grades would be Chelsea’s decision if the city moves forward with the school system.

Picklesimer said Chelsea will continue to fund city services with sales tax only.

Chelsea resident Amber Polk, who was elected to the Shelby County Board of Education in May, stated, “It’s not the city’s responsibility to maintain the school buildings, and that is why I ran. I saw the mess that we have going on right now. The disconnect is we were not being represented; a lot of this county has not been represented.”

Polk said she attended the forum to listen to what parents had to say.

“I’m truly just wanting to be here to hear both sides represented,” Polk said. “I want to know what all the parents feel. You’re validated in your concerns. You are absolutely right; the ball was dropped, and I feel like it is what precipitated all of this anger and all of this frustration.”

After the vote in May, Mayor Picklelsimer said his goal has been to find a way for all existing students not covered in the Shelby County Board of Education’s rezoning plan to attend Chelsea schools.

“This council has compromised, we’ve talked, and these people sitting at this table with me, even though we don’t all agree on this particular matter, we are still friends, and we are still neighbors,” Picklesimer said. “I believe it is up to the citizens of Chelsea to make this decision whether we go forward with a school system or not, and I believe in my heart of hearts that every student, whether they live in the city limits of Chelsea or not, that currently attend our schools should be afforded the same opportunity to attend our schools at the same price.”

The special election will be held Tuesday, July 12 from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Chelsea City Hall.