The Jefferson County Commission doled out more than $69 million in surplus funds this week to area school systems, in what the commission president called a “reward” to taxpayers for being patient while the county paid down its excessive debt.
The surplus was generated by the refinancing – at a much lower interest rate – of about $385 million in school construction debt, part of a $1.1 billion school construction bond approved in 2004. There are 12 county and city school systems in Jefferson County, and each is receiving its cut of the money based on enrollment.
“In previous years, we’ve given everyone a reason not to live in Jefferson County,” said Jimmie Stephens, the commission’s president. “This is the beginning of a renaissance for Jefferson County. We’re giving people a reason to move back to Jefferson County.”
That starts with a world-class education system, he said.
It wasn’t too long ago – 2011, to be exact – that Jefferson County filed what was then the largest municipal bankruptcy in the country after accumulating $4.2 billion in debt stemming from its sewer system. The county emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, and has been working toward reducing debt and “being good stewards of the citizens’ money” since then, Stephens said.
The school construction money is being paid back through a special 1-cent sales tax.
Within the next 12 months, Jefferson County will direct a total of $87 million to schools. In addition to the $69 million distribution, the county in mid-2018 will deliver the first installment of an annual $18 million allocation.
Unlike the original school construction bond, which could be used only for capital projects, the $69 million surplus funds can be used for anything the 12 school systems in Jefferson County see fit, including making capital improvements, buying technology and equipment, and hiring staff.
Brian Hilson, president of the Birmingham Business Alliance, said investing in schools is a smart move. Before businesses move into an area, he said, they look at graduation rates, test scores and other indicators to see if it’s not only a place where they can hire a workforce, but a place where they can relocate employees with families.
“We can never overinvest in public education,” he said.
Jefferson County schools will receive the most money – a little more than $24 million – which will build one new school, said Superintendent Craig Pouncey. The district just announced a $200 million capital improvement plan that includes seven new schools and nine major renovations to older schools.
The money from the County Commission will take care of construction costs for one of those new schools, Pouncey said.
Birmingham City Schools received the second-highest amount of the surplus money, at $16 million, which will go toward additional pre-K classrooms and advanced technology, said Board President Wardine Alexander.
“We’ve been working with our middle schools on an initiative to put Chromebooks or laptops in all of our classrooms and we want to expand that initiative all over,” she said. “We also want to expand our career academies and our band and music programs.”
The remaining districts received the following amounts: