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Education Reporter

Parents Fume Over School Referendum
County did 'whatever it took' to pass tax increase

Mobile County schools promoted
tax referendum on school property.
MOBILE COUNTY, AL - Public school employees have often used the schools to champion political causes, but the Mobile County public school system may have broken new ground in its 2001 campaign to pass the area's first property tax increase in 56 years.*  According to parents and other citizens, after a 1999 attempt to hike property taxes failed, the school district, along with local politicians and other government entities, businesses, and the Mobile City and County Chambers of Commerce, pulled out all the stops to pass the new tax. It was approved on May 15 by a vote of 58,255 to 45,209.

Parent Lisa Hatchett was so outraged by the "Yes" campaign tactics that she organized an ad hoc committee to investigate. As evidence of abuses mounted (see Field Trip), she incorporated a grassroots organization called CBG- Citizens for Better Government. A core group of members meet weekly, then disseminate information to other concerned citizens.

"We discovered that the referendum itself may have violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because the ballot wording was different for city and county residents," Mrs. Hatchett asserts. "We also found that taxpayer dollars allocated to certain organizations for the pur- pose of carrying out their missions were diverted to support the 'Yes' campaign. The local Chambers of Commerce, which this year received $400,000 in taxpayers' money from the City and County of Mobile, funneled $50,000 into the campaign."

Ironically, a measure called Amendment One was approved by Alabama voters in 2000 with the promise that, if passed, taxes would never be raised again in the state. CBG notes that many of the same groups and officials who supported Amendment One also supported this year's property tax increase.

CBG further alleges that: 1) Voters were not adequately informed about the property-tax hike or told that the school system's budget actually had a large cash reserve; 2) Voters and schoolchildren were unfairly exploited by scare tactics, and some students were so traumatized that they developed ulcers and other ailments requiring medical care; 3) Funds were transferred from one government account to another for the purpose of aiding the campaign; 4) School employees and public officials used their offices and public goods to promote the referendum for their own personal gain.

Deceit, Coercion, Intimidation 
Public officials painted a dire picture of the consequences if the referendum were to fail. High school football and other sports programs would be scrapped, they claimed, even though money was already budgeted for those programs. Cheerleading and band programs would cease, even though parents pay for their children to participate in such programs. Mobile County would lose its best athletes and brightest students to other districts and private schools, and many teachers and school employees would lose their jobs. In some classes, students were told there would be no textbooks if the measure were defeated.

"People are still coming forward with testimony about how they were duped," says Lisa Hatchett. "They understand they've been lied to and that their children have been used and indoctrinated."

She describes how the schools promoted the campaign: "'Vote Yes' signs and billboards were prominently displayed on school grounds. Any 'Vote No' signs that appeared were quickly removed. Teachers incorporated campaign themes and materials into class work and assignments. Intercom messages encouraged students to support the referendum and reminded them to pick up 'Vote Yes' signs in school offices."

Parent Susie Wallace tells how her son, a high school junior during the campaign, was affected by what she called "Vote Yes brainwashing." "The schools put unbelievable heat on these kids, especially with scare tactics about the loss of sports programs. My son doesn't normally go along with the crowd, but when he heard people say they were voting no on the referendum, he went ballistic."

Mrs. Hatchett charges that Mobile school superintendent Harold Dodge "was a 'Vote Yes' cheerleader, running the campaign from district headquarters." CBG has obtained memos from Dodge containing campaign instructions which were faxed weekly to school principals. The group is awaiting additional records requested under the Freedom of Information Act.

Teachers and students who did not support the referendum say they were threatened, ostracized and intimidated. One teacher reported being told that, if she wasn't "for the tax," she "would not be teaching in Mobile County schools."

Children were given "Yes" campaign pledge cards to be signed by parents and returned to teachers for rewards such as "Blue Ribbon" parties, candy, free homework passes, and extra points added to their grades in various subjects. When parents objected to these tactics, school officials denied they were taking place. Becky Batchelor had direct knowledge of the "Blue Ribbon" parties at her 4th-grade granddaughter's school, but school officials insisted that no such parties were held! The child was excluded from the festivities because her parents did not sign their "Yes" pledge card.

Students who did not return their pledge cards were routinely given class work while their peers attended "Yes" activities. On the evening before the election, homeroom teachers telephoned parents who had returned "Yes" pledges to remind them to vote.

CBG points out that the school district handbook prohibits such activities. It states: "The [School] Board shall prohibit employees from actively engaging in political activities in support of or in opposition to specific candidates or issues while an employee is officially carrying out his responsibilities . . . "

* Although there have been no new taxes until this year, sources say property taxes have nonetheless climbed 53% over the past 40 years in Mobile County through property tax "renewals." Periodic appraisals raise property values, thus increasing tax revenues.

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