Q&A on school district’s need for more schools and funding; public meetings set for Feb. 15 and 26

Over the past few weeks the Madison City Schools District has held a series of public meetings partially designed to campaign the need for expanding the number of schools within the city and to lobby the need for increased funding through a potential increase or other source of revenue. They have also allowed Superintendent of Education Robby Parker an opportunity to explain his vision for the future of the school district, and seek community input.

The first public input meeting was Feb. 1 at the Central Office. Two others will be held Thursday, February 15 at 6 p.m. at West Madison Elementary, and Monday February 26 at 6 p.m. Columbia Elementary.

To assist the community in understanding the main issues that will be discussed at the meetings, the school district has created an FAQ page. It includes answers to frequently asked questions, a summary of Parker’s long range plan, and a public comment section. Below are the summary and questions segments from the page. For more, go to www.madisoncity.k12.al.us.

Let’s begin with a summary of where Madison City Schools is as a school system and some of the challenges before it.
Topping the challenges are issues related to growth.

Madison City Schools has more than doubled in enrollment since separating from Madison County Schools in 1998 to become its own school system.

The number of schools has also more than doubled, with 12 campuses now serving an enrollment of nearly 11,000 students.
Schools come with hefty price tags. Building that many schools over a short period of time has capped our ability to borrow from the bond market unless there is a new revenue source. We’re still paying for them.

In addition to all those schools, there’s now a stadium, a transportation depot for the ever-growing bus fleet, a central administrative office, central office annex, and other facilities that have been added including special education classrooms and alternative school, not to mention all the school expansions to accommodate huge enrollment gains.

That’s a lot of brick and mortar in a short period of time that has driven up our mortgage payments. “The significant growth of students in the past 20 years has caused us to max out our debt borrowing until 2028 unless there is a new revenue source,” Mr. Parker reported.

A looming challenge to sustain Madison City as a top quality school district is being able to afford the needed improvements. Investments in teachers, professional development and operational support will remain a priority, as will initiatives that continue improving academic, arts and athletics offerings.

Voter approval of the tax renewals in December 2017 was helpful in that it protects what the district was receiving. For that, Mr. Parker and Board are most grateful to the taxpayers.

The Limestone tax settlement helps, but is far short of what’s needed to meet growth challenges. The settlement helped close the gap on the inequity in what Madison-Limestone residents pay in school taxes, and what Madison City Schools receives in return. Settlement helped avoid protracted, costly litigation with a potentially unfavorable outcome. Still, no side got everything it wanted. Here’s more background on the Limestone Tax case.

Mr. Parker’s 10-Year Vision also outlined goals to:
* Grow the district’s model Pre-K program (space is now maxed out).
* Expand language offerings so that every child can be bi-lingual when they graduate,
* Provide more accelerated math for elementary students.
* Build on career tech programs for “new collar” jobs that non-college bound students will be pursuing.
* Strengthen the arts programs in schools.
* Ensure maximum capacity utilization of schools through rezoning, which hasn’t been done in five years except for a minor adjustment. This will be done with careful consideration of growth projections so that no school is unnecessarily burdened by crowding.

Rezoning will also be designed to ensure proportionate mixes of socioeconomic populations. Diversity is a strength and it is to the advantage of students, and the district as a whole, for schools to be demographically equal to reflect the city’s population as a whole. A key to Madison City’s success has been ensuring that where you live makes no difference in the quality of school that you will attend.

Any rezoning proposal that is recommended will be done at the Feb. 22 Board meeting. There will be ample time for public discussion before coming back to the Board in a future meeting for a vote.
Frequently Asked Questions

(1) What’s the most critical need of Madison City schools to remain a top performing school district?
* Schools. Continued growth of 200-300 students per year will push capacity of schools at all levels beyond 100 percent within a few year if steps aren’t taken..

(2) So, what’s the proposal?
* A new elementary school opened by 2021 and repurposing West Madison Elementary into a Pre-K Center. A new middle school opened by 2023, and new capacity for high school students whether it be expansions to Bob Jones and James Clemens or a third high school by 2026. Be mindful, though, that schools take a lot of time from inception to opening. Approximately 3 years from board approval, to site acquisition, design, bids, construction, inspection, staff and operational decisions, and final completion. Add to that discussions and authorization for a new revenue source and the timeline could stretch another year or two.

(3) Can we afford to build?
* Not without a new revenue source. Our borrowing capability – or mortgage – is tapped out.
If a new city-wide revenue stream occurs. all tax dollars that are designated to go toward education will be directed to Madison City.

(4) If a new city-wide revenue stream can be found to help pay for new schools, will families on the Limestone County side of Madison see their education tax dollars go to Madison City Schools?
* Yes. If a new citywide revenue stream occurs, all tax dollars that are designated for education will be directed to Madison City Schools regardless of whether one lives on the Madison County or Limestone County side of Madison.

(5) Where will the new elementary and middle schools be built?
* There are no identified sites yet.

(6) When will a decision be made to build a new high school or build on to JC and BJ?
* No decisions have been made. We will continue to monitor growth trends and seek community input.

(7) When will West Madison Elementary become a Pre-K Center?
* That depends on whether our community is in favor of creating a second Pre-K Center and whether we can find a way to pay for a new elementary school.

(8) Can we add Pre-K classes if we do not make West Madison a Pre-K Center?
* We will be limited in our ability to expand our Pre-K classes if we do not open a new elementary school in 2021.

(9) What will happen if we do not build new schools?
* We will become overcrowded, and the quality of education will erode.

(10) Who will be rezoned?
* The whole district is subject to rezoning.

(11) What are the cost projections and proposed timetable for new schools?
* A 900 capacity elementary school for opening in 2021 is projected at $34 million.
A new middle school (2023 opening) for 1,200 students with a planned Performing Arts Center for use by the entire district will cost $61 million.
A new high school (2,000 capacity with estimated completion in 2026) will cost up to $120 million in tomorrow’s dollars. That includes. the cost for land and with a stadium. An alternative to a new high school would be expanding Bob Jones and James Clemens for a total of $18 million to accommodate 500 more students each.

(12) Are you exploring other funding sources besides, or in addition to, tax increases, such as developer impact fees?
* The City Growth Impact Committee comprised of residents across Madison is studying different sources of revenue including impact fees and will issue a report soon with recommendations on the best way to fund schools in Madison.

(13) How will you incorporate the arts center into the curriculum of students?
* Our Instruction Department will work on any curriculum issues related to a Performing Arts Center.

(14) How will you keep teacher-to-student ratios low?
* Student-teacher ratios are dependent on funding. As student enrollment grows, so does the state allocation per student. However, state funding for teaching units is in arrears, meaning it is based on the previous year’s enrollment. Funding in arrears hurts growing school systems like Madison. Only the Legislature can correct this. The current formula requires us to use local funds to fully cover additional teaching units until the following year when allocations catch up. Madison City ranks 61st our of 137 school districts in per-student expenditures.

(15). Should we grow the city at all costs?
* That is a question for the City of Madison since the school district doesn’t decide annexation and growth issues. Controlled growth can be healthy, as opposed to the alternative of a shrinking population that can decrease tax revenues and force school closings. However, there must be smart growth with adequate funding for schools so that Madison’s best asset – its schools – doesn’t diminish in quality.

(16). We have two huge high schools which is awesome, but the middle schools are running out of room as well. Are we going to try to accomodate room for more students as time goes on?
* Liberty Middle is undergoing a $9 million expansion that includes a new classroom wing, enlarged lunchroom and gym and other improvements. The project is tied to plans to move 6th grade from elementary schools into both middle schools starting in the 2018-19 school year. Discovery Middle has more space because it was originally built as a high school (the former Bob Jones High School site). Construction will begin soon at Discovery to expand the lunchroom, improve the gym and create special education (DD) classrooms.

(17). Now that you have laid out the plan and options for school expansions/building, I would like to see some funding options to come up with the money.
* The Growth Impact Committee is looking into that. It was launched by the mayor’s office and is headed jointly by a former councilman and school board member. They are considering all options and will make recommendations.

(18). Do we have an energy policy for our schools that will embrace renewable resourcess and energy efficiency? I understand upfront costs are high, but over time, will pay off.
* Madison City Schools is very cognizant of utilities usage and efficiency. The district spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past few years in LED lighting for all interior and exterior use, motion activated switches, timed water faucets and other technology. We have partnered with the Better Buildings Challenge of the Department of Energy to share Energy Star portfolio data with them in the monitoring of energy and water costs. MCS just received a state grant to upgrade lighting efficiencies at Mill Creek Elementary. We do not have resources in place for renewable energy at this time, but constatnly look for ways to reduce water and energy costs.