The $20-million question: A WAFF 48 News special report

By Elizabeth Gentle - bio | email

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - Deep layoffs, personnel cuts and another hit from proration hurt an already ailing Huntsville City Schools.

Their financial situation is so dire that if they don't get their finances in order, the state will take over.

So how did Huntsville city schools get this deep in debt and why wasn't something done years ago?

Ed Starnes served on the Huntsville school board from 1976 to 1990. 12 of those years he served as board president. He remembers proration then and how it affected education, but he says things weren't as bleak as they are now.

The school system had help from a city-wide tax refund, but unfortunately, the money ran out. The city of Huntsville then put a half cent sales tax to a vote, but it was voted down by tax payers.

"Less than 48 hours later I called a special meeting of the board and fired 480 people to balance the budget," said Starnes. "It was a horrible thing to do."

Starnes says there was no choice then, and today the school system, under a different administration, finds itself in a very similar predicament with more money trouble than ever.

So how did Huntsville city schools, one of the highest funded per pupil districts in the state, end up broke?

"It was simply a case of a lot of small decisions, hiring not terminating, over a long period of time that led up to $20 million," said Starnes.

But why wasn't anything done before now, and why has it taken this many decades for anyone to admit the system is in a crisis?

"There are many of the school board must share in that blame," said Huntsville School Board President Topper Birney. "I've got blood on my hands. I wish I had heard what was said two years ago. I didn't hear it."

Birney says the board recognized the system was overspent years ago, even before he was elected, but by all appearances Starnes says no one heeded the warnings.

"The board seemed to think $20 million was no big deal," said Starnes.

But it was a big enough deal that former State Superintendent Ed Richardson was put on retainer and asked by the school board to save them from drowning financially.

"He is bright and hard working and tough as nails. He'll tell them to do what they have to do," said Starnes.

If the board doesn't want a takeover, Starnes says they'll move quickly by closing more schools and cutting hundreds more support positions to balance the budget.

"It's painful, but they have to do it," said Starnes. "If you don't, the state will come do it for you."

Many in the city blame the school system's current superintendent. When asked if Superintendent Dr. Ann Roy Moore should shoulder the responsibility for the financial straits the school system is in, Starnes says that she is partly to blame.

"She recommended budgets and the board voted on them, so yes, maybe she is at fault for recommending the budget with too many people in it," said Starnes. "But there was never a dialogue between the two of them. They this is getting out of balance."

Starnes says it will take a lot of work to get the system out of a financial hole.

"It will take a major layoff this spring and a year of soul searching as they decide which schools to keep open and which ones to close," said Starnes.

So where is the debt now?

"That's an answer the board won't know until the end of the fiscal year," said Starnes. "At that point, all the cuts that have been made and any consolidations will be figured."

The school system says that should greatly help reduce the deficit, but they will still be in debt, likely for several more years.

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