GUNTERSVILLE – In a crowded room at the Marshall County Courthouse, local leaders, educators and concerned citizens gathered Wednesday to discuss imposing an additional countywide 1-cent sales tax. While some argued against the tax, almost everyone in attendance agreed on one thing: the Marshall County School System is in dire financial need.
Marshall County has five separate school systems: Albertville City Schools, Boaz City Schools, Guntersville City Schools, Arab City Schools and Marshall County Schools. While each district receives sales tax revenue, the city schools tend to get the lion's share due to the number of businesses and residences inside municipal limits where sales tax is currently at 9 cents on the dollar versus 5 cents in the county.
According to The Sand Mountain Reporter, a 2017 analysis from the Marshall County Board of Education showed Marshall County Schools received $226.06 per student through sales tax revenue compared to Guntersville receiving approximately $1,456.87 per student; Arab, $1,047.01 per student; Boaz, $895.65 per student; and Albertville, nearly $744.20 per student.
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Cindy Wigley said her district's maintenance needs, which include renovations and additional school buildings, currently stand near $200 million. She first proposed the 1-cent sales tax hike at a Marshall County Commission meeting on October 12. The increase could potentially bring in an extra $15 million per year, which would be divided among the other school districts, with County Schools receiving one-third of the revenue; Albertville City Schools one-third; and Arab, Boaz and Guntersville sharing the remainder.
The commissioners chose to table the matter until Wednesday's meeting to give the city mayors time to examine the proposal. Guntersville Mayor Leigh Dollar said on October 12 that she was not for or against it because she had just learned about it a few hours before the meeting, according to The Reporter.
On Wednesday, Dollar spoke on behalf of herself and the other mayors in the county and again asked for the Commission to delay voting on the tax increase to allow for more time to consider alternatives.
"All four of us would appreciate the opportunity to work with all parties involved to come up with a solution that benefits all the students and citizens in Marshall County," Dollar said at the meeting. "[W]e want the best for everyone. However, we need more time to come up with a long-term plan that addresses all the funding needs through multiple means. We are committed to working together to find a solution."
Marshall County School Board President Brian Naugher argued against waiting, saying this issue has been brought before the Commission multiple times and can no longer be ignored.
"So the question is, why not today?" Naugher said. "... Let's stop kicking this can down the road. You approve this today. It's two years before we have a seat in a classroom because of constriction time … That means overcrowding will get worse.
"We've already cut back on our spending to provide what our students, our teachers, and what our support staff need to teach tomorrow's leaders today," he added. "I would ask you this: stop kicking the can down the road. Today is the day to move the county forward … We got the tools; we just need a little more help."
Several members of the public have also voiced concerns over the 1-cent hike. Local resident Stephanie Hadwin told the Commission Wednesday that as a mom, she understood the importance of providing the best resources for a good education. However, as a small business owner, she said even a tax increase of 1-cent could have devastating consequences for her livelihood as well as many others who are still reeling from the effects of COVID-19 shutdowns.
"As it stands, we're already scratching by trying to keep our doors open," she said. "We already got people saying, 'If they pass this, I'm just going to go to Huntsville and shop.' Over 1-cent. That's something we're actually hearing."
The Commissioners voted again to delay deciding on the new tax, this time until December 14, at which time they will consider alternatives or vote on the original proposal. Still, Commission Chairman James Hutcheson expressed his desire to find a solution as soon as possible.
"We've kicked this can down the road about as far as we can kick it," Hutcheson said. "I think it's time to do something about it."
District 2 Commissioner Rick Watson, who made the motion to delay voting until December, said he believes the issue is finally going to be addressed "one way or the other," and allowing more time for planning would help ensure they choose the best option.
"Everybody knows we've got a problem," Watson said. "I think this shows they're committed to coming up with a solution."
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