Some layoffs are likely to come to Tuscaloosa City Schools without new revenue from a proposed property tax increase, administrators told local media last week.

TCS Superintendent Mike Daria joined Chief School Financial Officer Jake Duke and Public Relations Director Lydia Avant for a roundtable discussion with West Alabama media outlets Friday to discuss the system's financial picture and future.

Driving discussion is a proposed 11.5 mill increase to property taxes inside the city of Tuscaloosa, which would generate more than $17.5 million annually for TCS's 21 schools and 11,000 students. 

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To be clear, their message was not one of desperation or fearmongering - the three leaders prefer to talk about the advancements TCS has made in the last 20 years and to plan for the future with optimism that this tax increase will pass - to talk about the things TCS will be able to offer when it secures that funding, not about the things it will have to cut if the tax increase fails to pass.

Avant said more than 2,000 stakeholders including TCS employees, students, parents and Tuscaloosa citizens have recently answered surveys or attended meetings to spell out what they want to see prioritized in Tuscaloosa City Schools.  

"The priorities that were identified in the employee sessions were the exact same as what came out of the community sessions," Avant said. "So they mirrored across the board that these were their priorities."

Those priorities are school safety, educator excellence and premier student programs, and Duke said maintaining the best of what TCS offers today and enhancing those three big-picture priorities will cost around $17.5 million a year.

(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)
(Stephen Dethrage | Tuscaloosa Thread)

Duke said raising that kind of money will require an 11.5 mill increase on the rate at which property is taxed inside the Tuscaloosa City limits, which is currently set at 51.5 mill - today, the owner of property valued at $100,000 is taxed $515 annually, $1,030 for a $200,000 property and so on.

The proposed increase would raise property taxes by 11.5 mills to a total rate of 63 mills, a 22 percent increase.

The hypothetical owner of property valued at $100,000 would pay $630 annually beginning in 2025, the $200,000 property would be taxed $1,260, etc.

It's a tough ask as people across the region tighten their belts amid rampant inflation and generally stagnant wages, but Daria and the others noted that this tax has not increased since 1986.

He said for years, it has been clear that something has to change as the system's spending outpaces the money generated by existing sources.

"We analyzed this before COVID hit us and we were at a place where we have to "rightsize" in some capacity, either the revenue or the expenses," Daria said.

Temporary pandemic money gave TCS a little breathing room, but those funds are set to expire in 2024 and Daria and the school board are once again trying to figure out how to fund the system.

Of around 800 TCS teachers, roughly 650 of them are paid using money from the state of Alabama, but the other 150 or so are funded locally out of TCS's own coffers. Daria and Duke said If the tax increase fails to pass and new revenue cannot be raised, TCS will have to start reducing the size it pays with local money.

"To rightsize to existing revenue would mean decreasing the number of employees we have, who provide services for kids - we would feel it," Daria said. "If we start removing teachers, you'll see class size start to go up and most importantly these services that make us unique as a school system start to get clawed back."

Duke said TCS has cut as much to save money without slashing jobs and can draw no more blood from those stones.

"85 percent of our entire budget is spent on salaries and benefits. So in order to make any significant impact on our budget, we're going to have to get over into that 85 percent," Duke said. "Said another way, we've tinkered around in that other 15 percent all we can tinker. Even when we do that, I won't call it nominal but it is, kind of - the bigger impact would be making changes to the 85 percent of the budget that goes into salaries and benefits."

The Tuscaloosa City Council is expected to forward the request for a special referendum on the proposed tax to the Alabama Legislature to consider early next year. A special election to consider the tax hike is expected to be held sometime in late 2024, and the new rate would go into effect in 2025 if passed.

For more coverage of the proposed tax increase as it develops, stay connected to the Tuscaloosa Thread.

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