As Orange Beach seeks to become the 11th city in Alabama to split from its county school system in the past two decades, its neighbor along the coast – Gulf Shores – is planning a massive construction project called “The Next Wave” as it completes its third year of independence.
Gulf Shores City Council is voting Monday on three separate but related contracts totaling $1.6 million.
The money will go towards the design and cost estimate of an overall project that includes building a new high school on 200 acres of city-owned property near the Foley Beach Express.
“We have higher expectations for our students, what they learn and how they learn,” said Matt Akin, Superintendent of Schools for the City of Gulf Shores. “The new renovations expand teaching capabilities. We don’t just build boxes, but learning environments.
The contracts on which the board will vote include the following:
- $650,000 to Volkert Inc. for project management services for the entire project.
- $644,400 with Goodwyn, Mills & Cawood Inc. to prepare schematics, detailed cost estimates and phasing recommendations for a new high school to be built at Beach Express and Coastal Gateway Boulevard.
- $355,900 to Walcott Adams Verneuille to prepare design, construction and tender documents for an eight-classroom addition to the existing Gulf Shores Elementary School.
City of Gulf Shores school officials unveiled concept plans for the new school during a presentation to about 200 people on March 8. The project is part of a 10-year construction program that school officials hope to begin work immediately.
“A landmark for the community”
Its unveiling comes nearly three years after Gulf Shores school officials unveiled their post-secession plans in 2019, after it broke from the Baldwin County school system. The Gulf Shores split is the most recent city-county school split in Alabama.
The new additions to the elementary school are expected to be completed by August 2023. The new high school would be built by August 2025.
The general objectives of the school system with the construction project include:
- A three-phase project at the elementary school that includes the eight new classrooms, the transformation of existing classrooms into learning spaces with improved lighting and furniture, the construction of a new connector connecting the school buildings separated into a closed structure and the renovation of the existing college into laboratories and a learning centre.
- A two-phase project that transforms the existing high school into a college for the city’s 6th, 7th and 8th graders. The project includes the transformation of existing classrooms into learning centers with improved lighting and furnishings, updates to interior hallways and the media center.
- A new high school campus that will house all academics, athletics, fine arts, and outdoor and environmental educational opportunities.
“We want the new Gulf Shores High School to be a landmark for the community,” said Kevin Corcoran, board chair of the Gulf Shores City School System which was officially formed in 2019. a community-wide commitment to our small town.”
There are no overall cost estimates yet, Corcoran said.
“We will explore several construction methods and layouts,” he said. “With construction cost volatility and supply chain issues, it is difficult to estimate costs, especially for buildings that have not been designed.”
Orange Beach’s “next stop”
The ‘next wave’ comes after the city’s school system, following a controversial breakout from the Baldwin County school system, spent more than $8 million on building upgrades. The investment included, among other things, an extension to the locker rooms that allowed girls to have access to sports on an equal footing with sports facilities, which Gulf Shores City Schools officials say does not had not been possible.
The new construction comes after the Baldwin County School System in 2019 completed the $34 million construction of a new Orange Beach High School along Canal Road. This project was funded by the county’s pay-as-you-go system-wide construction program, and construction began around the same time that Gulf Shores city officials announced plans to separate from the county.
Orange Beach abruptly decided on March 17 to form its new municipal school system. The unanimous vote came without public comment, and without warning: Baldwin County Schools Superintendent Eddie Tyler learned of the Orange Beach plans just hours before a final decision was made.
Chasity Riddick, spokeswoman for the Baldwin County School System, confirmed talks have begun on secession between the city and Orange Beach County. She said formal negotiations cannot take place until Orange Beach elects a school board or hires a superintendent.
“It’s going to be a very long process and something that won’t have daily updates,” Riddick said this week. “At the moment the ball is in Orange Beach’s court as we await their next step.”
City of Orange Beach officials will provide more details on their plans at a public meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Orange Beach Performing Arts Center. Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon, who was reluctant to talk about city plans before negotiations with the Baldwin County school system, will be joined by the city council to discuss his decision to form a new municipal school system. .
Corcoran, following the Orange Beach council vote, congratulated them on their separation from the county and said he thought “local autonomy” was a good thing.
Corcoran also said he doesn’t think Orange Beach’s decision to create a neighboring town school system would create additional competition on Pleasure Island in Alabama.
“I certainly don’t view this as a competition,” Corcoran said of forming a city school system in Orange Beach. “It raises the level of education on the island and it will be good for everyone.”
The creation of Alabama’s two newest urban school systems illustrates the financial realities between cities able to make the leap without raising the property tax and those considering the option of raising the tax.
Gulf Shores moved forward with its spin-off and construction plans without mentioning a property tax hike. Orange Beach voters in 2014 rejected forming a city school division because it would have required a $5 million increase in property taxes.
Since 2014, both cities have seen an explosion in growth and lodging tax revenue, two sources of revenue that aren’t as prominent in other Alabama cities. Although towns like Northport and Chelsea are growing rapidly, their only option to fund municipal secession is a voter-backed property tax hike.
Gulf Shores grew 54% between 2010 and 2020, according to US Census figures. It was the fastest growing of any city in Alabama with over 10,000 residents. Orange Beach’s population growth was 48.8%.
Both cities are tourism meccas for Alabama due to the lure of beaches and a vibrant economy that includes popular entertainment venues, festivals, and sporting events.
The popularity of the hotel economy is reflected in their lodging tax revenue. At Orange Beach, a 2020 annual report shows that the city’s accommodation tax revenue from hotels and condominiums increased 117% from 2014 to 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic.
Three years ago, lodging taxes in Orange Beach were $21.9 million and city reserves were $98 million, according to the financial report.
Gulf Shores saw its lodging taxes drop from $14.2 million in 2019 to a budgeted $17.5 million this year. From 2020 to 2021, the city reports a 57% increase in lodging tax revenue.
Zahava Stadler, former director of policy at Ed Build, which released a report on school district secessions in 2019, said another notable factor in the city’s secessions is that Gulf Shores and Orange Beach are getting more retirees paying the city tax bases than the rest. of Baldwin County.
According to 2021 census estimates, 32% of Orange Beach consists of a population over the age of 65, which is well above the county average of 21%. Gulf Shores is at 23%.
Baldwin County’s under-18 population is 21.3%, according to census data. Gulf Shores (12.3%) and Orange Beach (14.9%) are well below.
“When you think about who makes up the tax base and what proportion of residents support (schools), that tells you something about the funds available,” Stadler said.
Stadler said it’s easier for cities in Alabama to separate from county school systems compared to most other states. In Alabama, a city only needs to have at least 5,000 inhabitants. The Alabama legislature often plays no role in decisions unlike in Louisiana, where legislative approval is required before a school secession can go forward.
There has been scrutiny of Alabama’s school divisions in recent years as research has shown the state trails only Maine for the most secessions since 2010.
Gardendale’s efforts to separate from the Jefferson County school system have garnered the most attention among the latest proposals. A federal appeals court ruled in 2018 that Gardendale, a majority white town, could not break away from a heavily black county school system to form its own education system in a desegregation case that dated back to 1965.
Stadler said that in general, city school secessions create new systems that are “less diverse and create a bigger economic divide” between two school systems. Baldwin County is majority white at 87.4%. Gulf Shores is 96.7% white, Orange Beach is 97.9% white.
“It’s true that Baldwin County, in terms of population, is 10 percentage points more diverse than Orange Beach and Gulf Shores,” Stadler said. “You won’t see a federal court going in here, but there is something like a racial difference.”