Drama is brewing in Chelsea after a proposed vote to create a separate city school system draws closer.
The city of Chelsea is scheduled to vote on whether the city will raise the millage rate, a tax rate used for real estate or property, by 12.5 to form its own school system. The vote is scheduled for July 12th and has led to heated debate, both online and in public forums.
According to Chelsea Mayor Tony Picklesimer, the millage rate increase would be more than enough to fund the necessary expenses of a city school system.
Picklesimer said the result was highly favorable when an independent group conducted a feasibility study based on the 12.5 millage increase.
"It is very feasible for the city of Chelsea to break away from Shelby County and start our own school system," Picklesimer said.
Critics of the proposal believe that the city is moving forward prematurely and is incapable of supporting an independent school system for several reasons. Opponents are concerned about what would be an approximately 28% increase in property tax.
One of the primary motivations for the separation, according to Picklesimer, is to provide an independent board of education that is local and more in tune with the needs of the city's schools.
"Having a local school board is one of the primary motivations, rather than depending on a school board that is based in Columbiana, that nobody from Chelsea is on, that is making decisions for 28 schools and 25,000 students," Picklesimer said.
The mayor further claimed that the schools within city limits required vital repairs and maintenance, which would be more easily implemented with a local school board.
"Chelsea residents are paying more into the Shelby County board of education than it takes to operate our schools," Picklesimer said. "When we have repairs and roof leaks, when we have the kinds of facility issues we have, when we have overcrowding in our schools. We've got kids in mobile classrooms; I don't like to know that our money is being spent elsewhere."
Some believe the feasibility study did not consider many necessary expenditures. Others fear having to move their children to different schools, away from their friends and teachers.
Cody Cothron is a Westover resident whose children currently attend a Chelsea school and would be zoned out if the vote passes, forcing his children to move schools.
"They are going to walk away with the keys to those schools, which is going to lead to our kids' friendships being pulled apart," Cothron said.
Picklesimer acknowledged that many who currently attend schools within Chelsea city limits would be forced to pay tuition if they wished to continue attending Chelsea schools, and that is only if there are available spots available in the school. He further stated that the tuition would be equivalent to the millage increase within city limits.
According to Cothron, the mayor has stifled debate on the subject.
"The mayor will not have an open debate on this," Cothron said. "He won't say, 'I present my plan, they present their plan, and the votes decide which is best,' he won't do that, and that's what everybody is frustrated about.
"The mayor and some of these city council members stated at a town hall that this was about facility improvement, not the quality of education. So, this whole thing is about building pretty schools and a pretty football stadium. To do that, they want to divide the community and leverage a 28% tax increase on their citizens."
Cothron and others have also expressed concern that valuable staff is not included within the city's budget, which they claim is already stretched thin.
"[The mayor] is saying the vote is for the kids," Cothron said. "But the problem with that is we lose assistant principals under his plan. We lose principals, assistant principals, counselors, teachers and lunchroom staff. So when you say it's for the kids, that's just political speech; it's a separation of the community."
Chelsea City Councilman Cody Sumners joined critics of the millage increase, stating that he believed the city's proposed budget leaves out essential positions and would stretch the city's finances to their limit.
"There are things that Shelby County provides right now that are not included in the city budget," Sumners said. "Like mental health counselors in the schools, that's not in the budget. School Resource Officers (SROs), that's not in the budget. … Just between those two things right there, you are looking at about half a million dollars, and we are only projected to have about a $3 million surplus."
Sumners said he believes the millage increase would put an unnecessary financial strain on the city.
"Our city right now has no property tax," Sumners said. "We fund our city solely on sales tax… If we create a city school system and implement this 12.5 millage property tax, about 36% of our tax revenue will go to a city school system. If we need to open another fire station, or we decide that we want to start our own police department, we need to be able to fund our city before we start funding a separate government entity."
Sumners, Cothron and others who oppose the proposal said the suggested millage increase would not be as effective as leveraging the city's 1% sales tax into bonds to improve the school facilities.
"There are going to be so many services and programs lost, even though [the mayor] says it's not going to happen," said Johnna Barnes, a Shelby County Schools bus driver. "When [the city] takes their 33 drivers that they need, there will be 20 bus drivers who are left without a position... If you are lucky enough to be tenured, you can go to another school system and maybe find an open position, but you may end up taking the position of a non-tenured person in order to keep your job. So the effects just go on and on."
Sumners also claimed that the additional teachers that would be required to fulfill the promises made by the mayor would exceed the current proposed budget.
"All those things add up, and you realize we are not going to have any money," Sumners said. "I think this will financially cripple our city moving forward because we are maxed out on the amount of property tax we can implement on a local level. So in the future, if we needed more money, we would have to go to the state legislature and get them to approve a vote of the citizens of Chelsea to create more property tax. …We are not going to be able to fund basic city services in the future."
A common concern from residents is the financial impact of the increased millage rate. According to the opposition, the proposed hike would cause those in already tight financial situations to be even further strapped for cash.
"From the people I've talked to, the property tax is the number-one thing that's bothering people," Barnes said. "There are a lot of elderly people here, people on a fixed income, there are a lot of single parents, and people that are scraping to get by. The city says, 'It's just the price of two cups of coffee a day.' Well, some people can't afford two cups of coffee a day; they live paycheck to paycheck. So this property tax is huge to people like that."
"There are a lot of families that have had long stressful talks at the dinner table about what their family's future looks like," Cothron said. "Maybe having to move, sell their home, and losing equity in their home, equity that they may be counting on if the recession hits. I'm telling you; it is a very stressful time in that community."
"Nobody likes taxes; I don't like taxes,” Picklesimer said. “The mere fact of adding a property tax, especially with our economy in such a questionable state, gas prices so high, the timing of this is not good, but the opportunity is now. We know where we are. Passing this tax now won't go into effect until October of 2023. People with mortgages won't see an increase in their house payments until the spring of 2024, so there's a lot of lead time."
1819 News reached out to those who support the new school system and was referred back to the mayor.
1819 News has corrected an error in this story. It was erroneously reported that the school bus driver's name was Amber Polk. 1819 News did not speak with Amber Polk for this story. That information has been corrected in this version.
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