IN EARLY NOVEMBER, voters in the Montgomery Public School District will be presented with an important choice: to raise the county’s rate of ad valorem tax. If the property tax referendum passes, it will be a decision to invest in Montgomery’s public school system and to therefore, increase the quality of life for all in our area.
Election day 2020 holds immense opportunity for Montgomery’s future. Voters will not only select their choices for national offices, but an important local referendum will prove to be one of the most pivotal decisions in Montgomery’s history. For the first time in 30 years, voters will be offered a chance to take the essential next step of investing in public education, in our students and in our educators, paving the way for a more prosperous future for all of Montgomery and the River Region.
This spring, the Alabama State Legislature authorized the Montgomery County Commission to include a property tax referendum on the November 3, 2020 general election ballot. The referendum asks voters to vote to increase the ad valorem tax assessed on all taxable property in Montgomery County (except for properties located within the City of Pike Road) to 22 mills. If approved by eligible voters, the total amount of ad valorem revenues would increase by an estimated $33 million, initiating a daunting climb out of the massive chasm in funding that Montgomery Public Schools (MPS) faces compared to systems of all sizes across the state.
At 10 mills, MPS currently receives the lowest amount of local funds legally allowed by the state. Neighboring Pike Road and Auburn have well over twice that much to fund their schools. Birmingham, Huntsville and Mobile all allocate higher ad valorem dollars per student than Montgomery, as do Selma City Schools and Dallas County Schools. Even some of our state’s poorest counties — Bullock, Perry and Sumter — assess more millage in support of their systems than Montgomery.
ACCOUNTABILITY & ACTION
Voters should know that an increase in funding will come with very specific accountability measures for MPS. If passed, the majority of the proceeds raised from the millage increase must be used on initiatives that directly support improved academic outcomes, and the legislation explicitly prohibits MPS from applying the proceeds from more than six mills for capital outlay or acquiring, equipping, maintaining, constructing or repairing public school facilities.
The system will also be required to adopt a detailed strategic plan with defined steps, assigned staff, financial implications, goals, deadlines and intended results to guide the MPS, which the Montgomery County Board of Education must approve by the end of November.
MPS must identify ambitious, but achievable performance metrics measuring progress towards the vision outlined in this approved strategic plan and provide an annual report to the Montgomery County State Legislative Delegation updating legislators on their progress. MPS Chief School Financial Officer Arthur Watts has said in interviews, “We are going to do everything possible to ensure that every tax dollar that comes to the Montgomery Board of Education is used for its intended purposes, and that’s the boys and girls of this school district.”
BENEFIT FOR ALL
An unprecedented partnership of business, young professionals and elected leadership has been working directly with the leadership of Montgomery Public Schools to set strategic goals that include academic improvements and a facilities review to ensure accountability for funding the referendum would provide. “In business, we work to make well-researched investments that are nurtured and carefully tended to reap the highest rewards over time. Now is the time to invest in Montgomery’s future, and the business community is committed to seeing our students, educators and entire region reach its potential through quality public education,” said Chamber Chairman Arthur Ducote.
Everyone in our region has a vested interest in the quality of our public education offerings as it has a direct impact on the ability of Montgomery’s economic development partners to successfully attract, retain and develop business for the region. The market for recruiting high-wage industry and businesses that create greater opportunity is highly competitive and demands that our public education system produce a workforce that is prepared to pursue a prosperous and productive future.
If properly funded and managed, our public-schools have the potential to produce the scientists, developers and technicians needed to support UAB’s health care advancement programs in Montgomery or the squadron of F-35s that will be based at the 187th Air Wing at Dannelly Field in just a few years.
The entrepreneurs of tomorrow are ready to gain knowledge and skills in graphic design, technology, building science, electronics, industrial maintenance, welding and HVAC at Montgomery Preparatory Academy for Career Technologies (MPACT) — if those programs and opportunities are supported with the funding, direction and community engagement that they need to succeed.
“Students graduating from our public-school system should be ready to enter the workforce, military service or to pursue additional education. This baseline performance is simply impossible if we continue to fund it the way we did 30 years ago,” said LaBarron Boone, Co-Chair of the Committee to Invest in Montgomery’s Future, a group working to pass the ad valorem referendum. “The market has come a long way in that time, and in order to reach our potential, we’ve got to invest in our most important asset: the young people who will lead those companies, start new businesses, envision and build a more inviting and rewarding community and defend our nation in military service.”
JUST THE FACTS: What Does Ad Valorem Legislation Authorize & Who Does It Impact?
What the legislation authorizes: An increase to the ad valorem (property) tax assessed on all taxable property in Montgomery County (except for properties located within the City of Pike Road) to 22 mills.
If approved: The total amount of ad valorem revenues would increase by an estimated $33 million. It cannot be levied before October 1, 2023.
A majority of the proceeds raised from the millage increase must be used on initiatives that directly support improved academic outcomes. The legislation explicitly prohibits Montgomery Public Schools from applying the proceeds from more than six mills for capital outlay or acquiring, equipping, maintaining, constructing or repairing public school facilities.
Sunset: Unless amended by the State Legislature, beginning in Fiscal Year 2029, the total number of mills levied and collected for Montgomery Public Schools would decrease from 22 mills to 16.
Impact to property owners:
- A person who owns a home at the median value in Montgomery County ($127,500) would pay an additional $12.75 a month in taxes.
- Properties located in the municipality of Pike Road would not be affected.
- The referendum does not change current-use statutes for timberland and farmland.
If the proposed referendum passes, a person who owns a home at the median value in Montgomery County ($127,500) would pay an additional $12.75 A MONTH IN TAXES.
That’s less than or roughly equivalent to:
- An oil change
- Your Netflix subscription or movie matinee with the family
- Lunch at your favorite meat & three
BY THE NUMBERS: WHERE MPS FUNDING RANKS ACROSS ALABAMA
- Montgomery County property owners are assessed less millage in support of MPS than property owners in the state’s poorest counties — Bullock, Perry, Sumter, and Wilcox — are assessed for their schools.
- Within Montgomery County, Pike Road City Schools — with only 2,182 students — assess 27 mills.
- Selma City Schools (2,769 students) and Dallas County Schools (2,901 students) have higher millage rates than MPS.
FEBRUARY 2017: MPS enters state intervention.
MPS board votes unanimously to work collaboratively with the Alabama State Department of Education on intervention, which enabled it to receive additional funding and resources to address internal concerns. Major areas of concern were the district’s finances, (the lack of a CFO and failure to submit a state compliant budget on time) as well as concerns with academics, transportation and the Child Nutrition Program.
MAY 2018: AdvancedEd (now Cognia) Places MPS “Under Review.”
This status reveals the system is at risk of losing accreditation, leaving students unable to qualify for college entry or military service. Montgomery Public Schools was rated in 31 areas on a scale ranging from “needs improvement” to “exceeds expectations.” MPS ranked “needs improvement” in 19 areas, “emerging” in 11 areas and “meets expectations” in just one area. MPS was not ranked “exceeds expectations” in any area.
JULY 17, 2018: Four New Members Elected to MPS Board
After a groundswell of bi-partisan, multi-generational, grass-roots engagement across the community, four of five MPS board seats were turned over in the election, and a new season of involvement with MPS began.
SEPTEMBER 2018: MPS Issues First Balanced Budget in a Decade
Since his hiring in 2018, MPS Chief School Financial Officer Arthur Watts has systematically restructured the MPS accounting practices, balancing the budget, achieving more than one month’s operating expenses in reserves.
AUGUST 19, 2019: Montgomery’s First Charter School – LEAD Academy – opened its doors.
NOVEMBER 13, 2019: MPS Board approves the Montgomery Educations Foundation’s Charter Conversion of three schools: Davis Elementary, E. D. Nixon Elementary and Bellingrath Middle in a 5-2 vote.
JANUARY 15, 2020: MPS Board approves LIFE Academy Charter Application to be housed in the St. Jude Academy facility in 6-1 vote.
FEBRUARY 2020: Improved accounting practices reveal $700,000 in misappropriated funds. Upon discovery, MPS CFO Arthur alerted authorities and initiated a state audit to confirm his findings. He raised requirements of bookkeepers to obtain financial management certifications through the Alabama Association of School Business Officials. All employees investigated for misuse of funding have been fired and are being prosecuted for their crimes. Two have been convicted.
FEBRUARY 6, 2020: MPS Board passes resolution to seek ad valorem increase for education funding.
MARCH 2020: MPS receives full accreditation from Cognia (formerly AdvancED).
MPS showed improvement in all 11 areas of focus in the “Leadership Domain” area; all the standards in the “Learning Capacity Domain” were ranked as improving; and in the “Resource Capacity Domain,” all but one were also ranked as improving, and MPS was not rated insufficient— the lowest ranking — in any area.
JULY 14, 2020: MPS passes resolution to request ad valorem referendum be put on November 3 ballot.
TO BE NOTED:
Since November 2018, Montgomery Public Schools under the leadership of the Montgomery County Board of Education and Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore have made MPS more accountable than it has been in recent memory.
MONTGOMERY PUBLIC SCHOOLS HAS:
- Obtained full accreditation, without restrictions, for all MPS schools. Balanced the school system’s operating budget, including putting in place the required reserves of emergency funding equal to at least one month’s operating expenses for the first time in more than a decade.
- Discovered inconsistencies in school finances, ordered an audit, uncovered the individuals who misused funds and prosecuted them. The perpetrators no longer work for MPS. Aggressively reduced administrative spending by more than $2 million. Currently, only three percent of school funds is spent on central office staff, which is consistent with similar sized systems across the state.
- Created a community advisory committee to help prioritize and rein in maintenance issues and began rehabilitating school facilities.
- Formed a community advisory committee to leverage technology to increase engagement and collaboration between schools and individuals, businesses and other civic, community and social organizations.