By Ron Barry
Do you know what a brand new school bus costs?
We’ll get back to that in a minute, and why it’s relevant.
On November 13, 1980, the Crockett County Commission authorized the Election Commission to hold a referendum for the purpose of increasing the local sales tax by 0.75%, to be applied toward retiring the debt upon “the purposed new County-Wide High School,” according to the resolution enacting the result of that referendum.
On January 5, 1981, the citizens of Crockett County voted in favor of the increase, and “several of the municipalities and school boards in Crockett County… agreed to waive their share of the increased sales tax collection” so that those shares could be applied to the school’s debt service. The County Commission made it official on February 23, 1981,
In 1982, the Crockett County Board of Education entered into an agreement with the city boards of Alamo, Bells, Friendship, and Gadsden which stated that “one-third (1/3) of the Fifty Per Cent (50%) Sales Tax amount allocated” for the cities would instead be paid to the Crockett County Board of Education for this reason. The town of Maury City joined in shortly thereafter.
That original agreement eventually established that revenue from local sales in Crockett County (including its municipalities) would be distributed as follows: “one-third to General Purpose School Fund to be divided out among the systems pursuant to average daily attendance; one-third to Debt Service Fund for School Education Debt Service; and one-third to the municipality of political subdivisions where such tax is collected, which would be the City of Alamo, City of Bells, City of Friendship, City of Gadsden, City of Maury City, or the County of Crockett.”
The agreement had no termination clause or termination date, because by 1996 (when it was amended slightly because of another sales tax increase), all the entities involved recognized it as being extremely successful and effective. It has allowed for a tremendous cooperation between the County Board of Education and the towns in which its elementary schools are located, and it has functioned equally effectively for the existing school districts of both Alamo and Bells.
With the designation of the one-third of the sales tax going to debt service, Crockett County has been able to upgrade facilities, add new construction, and become a desired destination for students. Even now, Director of Schools Phillip A. Pratt says he has a “waiting list” of 275 students from outside Crockett that want to get into a school, but he can’t yet allow it because he maintains a “cushion” for families who may actually move into the county – something that is almost certainly going to increase once Ford’s Blue Oval City is built.
From his viewpoint, as he told the County Commission in its most recent meeting, “It’s an arrangement that’s working, and working well for everybody.” Jordan Spraggins, the current chair of Alamo’s Board of Education, says he’d echo those words exactly as stated. “It would make no sense at this time to do it any differently,” he says.
So why would anyone be overly concerned with it at the moment?
Because Crockett County Mayor Gary Reasons received a letter dated December 4, 2019 from the Alamo Mayor John Avery Emison making “claims and demand for payment” from the county, saying “the legal counsels for the Board of Mayor and Aldermen and the Alamo City School Board have advised that an agreement without a termination clause is not valid.” Interestingly, both of those Alamo boards voted to continue the agreement that same month, and the letter was withdrawn.
The result, however, was a Town of Alamo resolution – noting the withdrawn letter, and then agreed to by the other entities – to extend the agreement but to do so for only four more years – meaning it will be coming up for renewal again around November of 2023.
Spraggins said his board has already been approached again regarding the termination of the agreement. While he remains firmly against discontinuing it – as are county officials Reasons, Pratt, and Trustee Gary Spraggins – he did not want to speak for his entire board. “We were against stopping it the last time it came up, but we haven’t considered it as a group since then,” Spraggins said. “To me, it doesn’t make any mathematical sense, but a bigger reason is that what he have now has been built by a tremendous spirit of cooperation between all the parties. We help each other, and we’re eager to do so. Why would we want to take a chance on destroying that?”
Which brings us back to that school bus question.
Currently, Crockett County provides all bus transportation for schools within the county, even in the separate school districts of Alamo and Bells. The two town districts are charged only a fraction of the total costs of that operation.
So what would happen if the agreement were ended?
First, let’s look at what the municipalities would gain if they retained the tax money they’re contributing. According to the Trustee’s most recent figures for the 2021-22 fiscal year, Alamo would get $151,822.83 and Bells would get $147,657. But guess what both towns would immediately need? School buses, because without the contribution to the county, the county is under no obligation to help transport these children to their district’s schools.
One brand new school bus, according to a leading dealer for Blue Bird, the nation’s most popular brand of bus, costs between $90,000 and $120,000, depending on the type of fuel it uses. And 73% of school transportation buyers prefer clean diesel buses (which currently would have to be filled with $6-per-gallon fuel). And according to The School Superintendents Assocation, the average costs for operating and maintaining one school bus annually is $34,000 to $38,000.
That’s for one bus. A large bus seats between 54 and 90 students. Could either the Alamo or Bells system function with one bus? It’s pretty unlikely. That doesn’t even get into the discussion on special needs students, who need a different type of transportation – one which, currently, the county is providing.
So, in doing the math, if the tax money retained would get completely burned up by the costs of purchasing and operating buses, what would be the point of ending the agreement? Each system would also have to hire a transportation supervisor, and work out some kind of maintenance agreement with a repair shop or other entity (or create its own). It should be obvious by now: they’d be losing both money and efficiency.
That doesn’t even get into the amount of money that Crockett County would have to replace if the municipalities pulled out of the agreement.
Quoting from the Tennessee Comptroller’s office: “Tennessee’s maintenance of effort laws ensure that local funds budgeted for schools do not decrease as state funding for schools increases. County commissions, city councils, and special school districts must budget at least the same total dollars for schools that they did the previous year to comply with maintenance of effort laws.”
Using this year’s figures, Gary Spraggins says $764,504 would have to be replaced to keep school spending equal to its current level. The only way to replace it would be with a property tax increase. And with an increase of one cent generating approximately $25,000 in revenue, he says it would require about a 31-cent rate increase on each Crockett taxpayer (which, of course, includes those who live within the Alamo and Bells city limits).
If the agreement ends, therefore, Alamo and Bells citizens would need school buses (which would cost more than the money gained by retaining the sales tax), and their property taxes would increase substantially.
That doesn’t even get into the issue of the fact that the county is already responsible for educating all of Crockett’s children for middle school and high school. That’s why the maintenance of effort figure can’t be reduced for the county. Are Alamo and Bells residents wanting to build their old middle and high schools again? Where would that money come from, without another tax increase on top of the one required for maintenance of effort?
As Jordan Spraggins says, “We’ve been there and done that years ago. There’s a reason the leaders were wise enough to consolidate the schools back then, and it’s worked remarkably well. Why would we want to take a step backward again and just weaken the system that has been established? Especially now, when no one is completely sure of how the state’s new funding formula is going to affect each district.
“One of the best things we can teach our children is the strength of relationships and cooperation, and we can point to that in the very system where they attend school. Crockett County is special in that regard, and we’d be foolish to upend it now.”