By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Maxwell Air Force Base could be reduced or relocated in the next round of military base realignments and closures, partly due to Montgomery’s poor public-school performance, according to city officials. That’s why Mayor Steven Reed and other officials are encouraging voters to support the Nov. 3 referendum that would raise property taxes in Montgomery County to direct more than $33 million toward Montgomery Public Schools.
At a press conference on Wednesday outside of Maxwell’s main gate, Reed said Montgomery’s economic success is dependent on the success of the city’s public school system.
“The stakes have never been higher for the community,” Reed said. “When we think about the $2.6 billion impact that Maxwell-Gunter Air Force Base has on this economy and this community, it’s something that cannot be replicated.”
The base is the largest employer for the River Region, with about 13,000 airmen and contractors working at Maxwell and the Gunter Annex.
An internal military report card showed that Maxwell is ranked near the bottom of all 154 Air Force instillations due to the MPS system’s poor academic performance and lack of community support in recent years.
Gen. Trent Edwards, the former commander of Maxwell’s 42nd Air Base Wing, voiced his support for the referendum on Wednesday and said its success was important for military families’ wellbeing.
“I am voting yes to help create more options for military family members, raise the investment in quality public education that benefits all of our children and supports Maxwell Air Force Base,” Edwards said.
As of last month, 160 MPS students were identified as being connected to the base.
The Nov. 3 referendum would increase property taxes in Montgomery County from 10 to 22 mills. This increase would mean an $12.75 increase for the average property owner each month, resulting in about $33 million more annually for MPS.
The state constitutionally requires districts to be funded at 10 mills, and Montgomery is currently the only major city in Alabama that still remains at that level.
Other counties and cities, including neighboring Pike Road, have chosen to raise their property tax rate in order to better fund their school systems.
Montgomery County Commissioner Doug Singleton lives in Pike Road and said on Wednesday if the county wants to have better business opportunities, then citizens have to start investing more in public education.
“But I am a business person, and for my business to remain viable here in Montgomery County and the city of Montgomery, we’ve got to have a top-notch public education option for people,” Singleton said.
MPS has been under state intervention for more than three years, but State Superintendent Eric Mackey has signaled to district leaders that the intervention could end soon.
MPS’ Superintendent Ann Moore said on Wednesday that obtaining additional revenues will help improve student achievement.
“Our students are very important and we want to raise the proficiency level of those students, that means we need some local funds in order to make that happen,” Moore said.
If the referendum passes, the tax increase would start in 2023.
MPS School Board President Clare Weil said the increase of money would go towards securing a $250 million bond to cover school repairs and a number of other initiatives like hiring art and music teacher for all schools, hiring more AP and career tech teachers for all high schools, hiring more bus drivers, more school nurses and more school counselors.
Weil told ADN that even though about 168 MPS employees called out of work on Tuesday as a sign of protest for having to go back into in-person teaching amidst concerns over the coronavirus, she does not think that is a bad sign for the referendum.
“A lot of the things that need fixing, and some of the concerns they had, are just a matter of money and fixing the buildings,” Weil said. “If this passes, we’ll be able to get a bond issue and fix and replace everything and no one has paid attention to our schools in a very long time.”
Reed said he sees the referendum vote as not only a way to keep the air force base in Montgomery but as a way to improve the community as a whole.
“When we think about an additions $33 million and what that would do for our schools, it not only impacts our rankings as it relates to how the Air Force views Montgomery as a community, but it impacts our overall quality of life for people that live right in this neighborhood, for people that live in other parts of Montgomery, but it impacts the ability for us to go out and secure economic development projects as well,” Reed said.
“All of these things come back to the quality of education that we have.”