Alabama lawmaker threatens: Local school tax could go away

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — A south Alabama lawmaker threatened to make a Baldwin County school tax that pays for additional teachers and school employees "go away" after he was criticized over education budget language.

Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, fired off the threat by email in November to Baldwin County school system financial officer CFO John Wilson. Public school advocates had criticized budget language that ended up steering a large sum to the new Pike Road city school system from a fund that helps rapidly growing school systems.

"I increased the funding for current units and then fully funded Pike Road ... If you have a problem with that give me a call. Remember the Penny," he wrote, referring to a one-cent sales tax that goes toward school funding, "can go away." The tax will expire in 2018 unless renewed by lawmakers.

Pittman represents Baldwin County in the state Senate and in the most recent session was the chairman of the Senate education budget committee.

Pittman, in an interview, acknowledged that he sent the email and said he overacted to criticism.

He said he was frustrated by criticism over the school funds, which were less than $10 million. Pittman said he had spent several months battling attempts to divert large sums from the $5.9 billion education budget to the state's cash-strapped general fund budget.

"So when I was criticized I probably overreacted a little bit," Pittman said.

The school system, in a statement, did not address the email but said the penny tax has provided vital funds to the school system.

"The one percent sales tax pays to keep more than 500 local school employees serving students to make up for a shortfall in funding from the State," Baldwin County Superintendent Eddie Tyler said in a statement.

The tax this year enabled the school system to hire 504 additional school employees, including 144 teachers, 19 counselors, 25 teacher aides and 69 bus drivers, according to a year-end report to the school board from Wilson.

The Pike Road school system, which started holding classes this year, got nearly a quarter of the money from the $9.6 million current unit fund, a pot of money that helps rapidly growing school systems keep up with growth. That was because language inserted in the budget said that start-up charter schools and start-up public school systems would be funded at a higher level, Pittman said.

Pittman said he did not have the language added to the budget. He said charter school backers sought the language to try to make money available for charter schools.

The Alabama Legislature in March gave final approval to GOP-backed legislation that would allow charter schools in the state for the first time.

So far, no charter schools have opened in the state.

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