Solar’s first money to raise Lawrence education

NOV.27 – MOLTON – Lawrence County’s first solar plant is expected to generate more than $43 million in new tax revenue for the county’s school system in the next two decades, and officials are running wild over how to spend the windfall from building and repairing schools to introduce new courses.

The $900 million solar panel module manufacturing facility, announced earlier this month, will receive about $69 million in non-education and local state taxes waived over two decades as part of incentives for the plant to locate in the county. Lawrence. But education taxes are not mitigated under state law, and the plant will provide Lawrence County schools with an estimated $12.3 million in tax revenue during construction in the next three years and another $31.4 million in property taxes over 20 years.

Superintendent John Brett Smith said the extra tax revenue would benefit a school system that has been operating on tight budgets since 2014 when International Paper closed the Courtland Mill which was the county’s largest employer at the time.

“Locating First Solar here is a real boon for the county, and the school system would certainly welcome the additional tax revenue,” said Smith. “We have several schools that need to be modernized or need to be replaced. We know more teachers can be funded locally. There are some offers and academic opportunities to improve our sports facilities.”

He said Hatton High School has 115 freshmen this year after permanently closing RA Hubbard last spring.

“We’re at 546 students at Hatton High and it’s close to capacity,” Smith said. “We have about 70 kids from RA Hubbard and the other kids live out of the area who want to come to school or just be new students to the county. It’s a big problem to have.”

The three East Lawrence campuses and Hazelwood Primary School are listed among the schools in need of updating.

“Hazlewood Primary School is an old school that needs to address some issues,” said Smith, who has been superintendent since 2016. “We will be going around the county and looking at our capital improvement needs. The age of our roofs is a concern.”

First-term board member Delandrion Woods, who represents District 1 in the northern part of the district, said he would prefer a new K-12 school eventually built in his district.

“First, I want to make sure that every student and every teacher in the district system has the supplies and resources they need to learn and teach,” he said.

He said an influx of more families moving to the county for jobs at First Solar could be the driving force for adding a school in his district.

“We’ve got Hazlewood Elementary and it’s got a lifetime. I’d like to see some of that tax money used in maybe five to ten years to put a K-12 school in the district. And that’s something we’ll address in a few years,” Woods said.

A federal judge in April upheld the school board’s recommendation to close RA Hubbard in North Courtland primarily due to an enrollment of 147 students in grades 7-12. School system data showed the cost per student was $18,030 at Hubbard and standardized test scores were consistently low.

Rita Waldarb, a member of the District 5 School Board, said she supports the regime to fix roofs, pay off debts and put some money in its reserve. “We had roof leaks at East Lawrence Elementary School that we patched,” she said. “Maybe some of that money could go towards replacing that roof. Maybe we have others around the county that need replacing as well.”

Paying off school bonds early can be a complicated process, Smith said. He said the school system owes about $30 million in long- and short-term bonds. “We can pay off some debt, but it’s a tough process. You can’t just put in extra cash like you could if you had an extra $10,000 to pay off a mortgage on your home. A lot depends on the timing of when the bonds mature. Most of our debt is related to capital improvement projects from a few decades ago. We will definitely look at what we can do.”

Adding classes such as family and consumer sciences, formerly known as home economics, life skills, and improvement engineering and robotics classes are on Smith’s short list.

“Life skills can teach students how to handle finances and do taxes,” he said.

Improving sports facilities is also on his wish list. “We may consider putting the competition track in schools,” he said. He pointed out that adding artificial turf in some fields may not be feasible due to the high initial cost.

“We won’t rule anything out until we know more,” he said.

Smith reiterated that First Solar and any of its suppliers based in the county will take some of the sting out of the international paper shutdown. After the Courtland plant closed in March 2014, sales tax revenue for the school system initially decreased by about $800,000.

The system received $5.07 million in fiscal 2013 compared to $4.27 million in fiscal 2015 in sales taxes. As a result, the number of locally funded teacher units decreased from 25 to eight.

International Paper had $86 million in payroll when it announced on September 11, 2013, that it was closing. Records show that 318 of the 1,100 IP employees have home addresses in Lawrence County. First Solar is expected to have a payroll of approximately $40 million and 715 employees when it begins producing its modules in 2025.

Another key feature, Smith said, is the school system’s vocational technology center in Moulton.

“We’re in the process of adding to the Career Tech Center,” he said. “I will be meeting with officials with First Solar and the Government Training Center (this week) about curriculum plans. We believe we can provide First Solar with quality local staff,” he said.

He said the school system will also hold discussions with the North Central Alabama Regional Council of Governments (NARCOG) and the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA) to improve its partnership with the First Solar project.

He said the industrial and electronics maintenance courses currently offered at the technology center should be attractive to First Solar. Several hundred students have taken courses through the Technology Center in recent years.

“If a student is interested in engineering, pharmacy, or a medical technology field and going to college after high school or wants to learn a skill and prepare to join the workforce, the Career Technology Center has plenty of courses to prepare them,” said Smith.

Lawrence students will have more opportunities with the arrival of First Solar, said Kenneth Brackens, president of the Lawrence County Industrial Development Board. Construction work on its 2.4 million-square-foot plant in the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park is expected to begin early next year.

“This company is going to make a difference in people’s lives,” Brackens said. “People with a high school diploma can go out there and get a well-paying job for some jobs. The difference between making minimum wage at $26 an hour is huge. It helps you feel good and hopefully not worry about getting a job. There shouldn’t be Anyone who wants a well-paying job and lives in Lawrence County” and can’t get a job.

With some county officials predicting population growth of up to 25% in the coming years, will the school system need a new high school to fill the demand? Smith said it’s too early to tell.

“We will closely monitor the growth based on the trends we are seeing,” he said. “That’s something that’s likely years away. Adding more families to Lawrence County means more students. The school system can accommodate several hundred students before we have to build new ones. We’re certainly not ruling out a new school, but that’s going to be a few years to go.” The Road “.

– mike.wetzel@decaturdaily.com or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.

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