Photo by Keith McCoy.
Homewood City Schools
Students Justin Gamble and Aiden Heine build LEGO robots and write code to program them to move and complete tasks. Homewood City Schools did not receive funding for technology from the state last year, and funding from the Homewood City Schools Foundation had to help in that area.
In the past, the Homewood City Schools Foundation has been able to put its fundraising money toward iPads and teacher enrichment. But now the nonprofit pays for basic technology, according to Superintendent Bill Cleveland.
The reason is that, although Homewood receives more money in the state per student than any other district, twice as much money comes from local tax revenue than from state funds.
“At one time the local money was used as icing on the cake,” Cleveland said. “And right now we’re using it to bake the cake.”
Even though the recession of 2008 is over, education funding has remained more than $1,000 lower per student in Alabama, which is the biggest decline in education funding in the country, according to the national Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Homewood currently receives about $500 per student less than it did in 2008, according to Cleveland, which works out to be $2 million in total.
This shortfall is on top of the approximately $600,000 the district is shortchanged because of its rising enrollment. State education money is given to districts based largely on how many students attended the district the year before. So when the number of students increases — which it has by about 150 students a year the past two years — the district doesn’t get enough funds to pay for those students until the following year.
If the state of Alabama won’t increase school funding, Cleveland wants the state to allow Homewood to make up the difference itself.
“I’m not about to be presumptuous enough to say that if they just let us raise the taxes, we’ll raise it,” Cleveland said. “That would be ridiculous. I think you have to demonstrate to the public what the district’s needs are. But right now we don’t even have that option.”
The reason Homewood can’t raise any additional revenue is due to a law Alabama passed in the 1970s known as the Lid Bill. The bill limited the amount of property taxes a resident in Alabama would have to pay to $75 per year for every $1,000 of property he or she owned. The bill put a “lid” on what taxpayers have to pay.
But when the bill passed, Mountain Brook and Vestavia were already collecting more than $75, so lawmakers exempted them. So Mountain Brook and Vestavia can raise local property taxes all they want to help pay for the state’s funding shortfall, but since Homewood’s taxes were lower at the time, they were not exempted.
“My issue with the Lid Bill is simply this,” Cleveland said. “If the citizens of Homewood wanted to make up the shortfall of the state, we don’t have the ability to because of the Lid Bill. However, our fine friends in Mountain Brook or Vestavia, who are often held up to the same standards, if they want to, they can.”
Mountain Brook and Vestavia already raise more money than Homewood through their nonprofit foundations. In 2012, the Homewood City Schools Foundation raised more than $100,000. But the Vestavia Hills City Schools Foundation raised 2.5 times as much, and Mountain Brook’s foundation raised over half a million dollars.
Homewood’s foundation has increased its revenue in recent years by running $100 per plate celebration dinners, according to Amy McRae, the foundation president. But they’ve had to use that money to pay for basic supplies, such as computers, rather than spending it on enrichment grants and teacher development.
Cleveland recognizes that Homewood is in a privileged position compared to some nearby districts, but he said it’s also held to a higher standard.
“In certain parts of Jefferson County this might seem almost laughable because some places don’t have almost anything,” Cleveland said. “But the reality is that the standards that we’re held to for greatness are really high. If we have 150 Chromebooks but 300 students and we have to rotate those Chromebooks around, one can look at that in another part of Jefferson County and say, ‘What a great problem to have.’ Whereas here, we would like to say that every student should have one.”
There is one glimmer of hope despite all the belt-tightening, Cleveland said: The quality of the education has remained the same. “It’s a tribute to the folks living in Homewood, the city leaders, faculty and staff members,” Cleveland said, “that while [state funding has remained low], it hasn’t affected the academic results. We’re still one of the top systems in this state.”
To learn more, visit homewoodcityschoolsfoundation.com.