WINSTON COUNTY - The decision by Winston County Schools Superintendent Greg Pendley this past week to accept bids on the county’s 16th section of property, which the Winston County Board of Education has had under its control since a ballot vote in 2016, has been met with mixed reactions by the public.
The 2016 vote saw the majority of voters agreeing to take the authority to manage, control and lease 16th section school properties away from the state Commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources and give it to county boards of education to be in control.
Before 2017, the Commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources had the authority to manage, control and lease 16th section school property in Winston County. The Land Ordinance of 1785 reserved the 16th section of every township for the maintenance of public schools within that district.
Any income arising from the sale or development of the 16th section of property shall be placed into a trust fund applied to the support and maintenance of public schools in the state, according to legislation calling for individual counties to vote to change the ownership and management of 16th section property to boards of education.
State Representative Tim Wadsworth--who sponsored the bill calling for county citizens to vote on this issue in a referendum--had approximately four years ago gone before the Winston County Board of Education stressing the 16th section of property should be developed and used for public recreation in the form of a boat launch area.
The 16th section of property that is the center of all of this attention is approximately 250 acres located in the Yellow Creek area of Smith Lake past the Houston Recreation Area. The property, which has never been developed, includes about a mile of shoreline in the area many refer to as Crant Berry’s former place.
“The property is lake property that would have never been a location for a school,” Wadsworth pointed out.
The bill requires that any proceeds and income earned from the property’s development be used toward funding education for students of the county school district.
“I am proud of the local bill. We should support the board in their decision to sell the property,” Wadsworth stated, adding the property, by law, was in the board’s control.
The wording of the legislation reads the Winston County Board of Education has the authority, “to manage, sell, lease and control those lands and any timber, minerals or other natural resources of the land, and to provide for the distribution of any proceeds and interest generated by the properties.”
“We would have loved to have a boat launch that would accommodate a BassMasters tournament, but the U.S. Forest Service has a public boat launch near this property that is available for launching,” Wadsworth pointed out.
“We all have to support the board of education in their decision making,” Wadsworth added. “The benefit to students and the maintenance of the principal proceeds for future generations of students is a positive for Winston County.”
Pendley noted that he had been given the authority by the board to act as overseer in managing the property, which now includes accepting bids in an effort to sell the property.
Pendley commended voters for deciding the property should be in control of the county board of education.
The Winston County Board of Education is currently accepting proposals for the sale of approximately 173 of the 250 acres of 16th section property, according to a copy of the proposal being sent out for prospective bidding. The 173 acres is the waterfront portion of the property, Pendley explained.
Since the board has held control of the 16th section of property, Pendley has discussed various options for the property’s use with board members, he said.
A decision was made to sell the property and place the proceeds into a trust account, with the board being allowed to use the interest on that account without touching the principal, according to Pendley.
“Any development that happens within our county, the property taxes will help us, but that will help all entities in the county,” Pendley said. “Depending on the level of development (on the 16th section) it will help us, andit will help the county as a whole.”
A breakdown of figures provided by Andy McCay, chief school financial officer for Winston County Schools, shows that schools in Winston County receive 12 mills of property tax, or $1.20 for every $100 worth of taxable property.
A countywide tax of nine mills is collected, which is split between the Winston County and Haleyville City school systems.
The tax is divided based on average daily membership, meaning the county school system receives 63.30 percent of the split, with Haleyville City Schools receiving 36.70 percent, McCay noted.
A district tax of three mills is also collected, which goes for all of Winston County with the exception of the Haleyville city limits, McCay illustrated.
Currently, Winston County Schools are exempt from paying ad valorem taxes on the 16th section property because the property has not generated any revenue, McCay explained. Once the property is sold and developed, however, property taxes will be generated to help the schools and the county, officials explained.
There are several reasons why bids are being accepted for the 16th section of property, according to Pendley.
“It is not something that school systems are set up to do,” Pendley said about developing 16th section property.
“After looking at the legalities of everything, it’s my job to help us, not hurt us,” Pendley said.
“If we developed (the property), there would be a tremendous amount of liability that lies within that, and I could not use our state insurance. I would have to go out privately to get that (insurance).
“I am not going to spend the resources to develop it when we can get a set amount and let a private entity develop it.
Pendley confirmed the county board did not vote concerning the acceptance of proposals for the sale of the portion of 16th section property. Instead, the board has allowed Pendley to “head that up,” he said.
“We’ll take a vote once we get proposals in,” said Pendley said. “Outside of that, it is just something I have been trying to work on.
“It’s a once-in-a-life time opportunity for the county as a whole,” he continued.
Pendley has been working with board attorney Jeff Mobley, as well as Birmingham attorney Kane Burnette in this process.
Proposals must be received by the BOE by 4 p.m. Friday, May 28, after which time the board will review the bids, accepting or rejecting any proposals.
Proposals can be sent to Pendley at: Winston County Board of Education, 25101 Highway 195, Double Springs, Ala 35553 or emailed to email@example.com. or to Andy McCay, at the same physical address or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
“We have already been offered slightly over $4 million for the property,” said Pendley, noting this offer was made prior to the board currently accepting proposals.
“I think it will bring far more than that. There have been offers that have come through already,” he said.
“I have reached out to several people I thought would want to invest locally. Our attorneys are sending it out to folks nationally, so there will be several people involved in the process,” Pendley explained.
Once a proposal is accepted and the property is sold, proceeds generated for the board of education will not be earmarked but will be set aside for education as a whole, Pendley explained.
The board will then make decisions as they go on how the funding can be spent throughout the district, he added.
Pendley’s action to accept proposals for the 16th section of property was questioned by Addison resident Kyle Woodard.
“It’s not that much of a deal to me (that) they are selling it. I feel like the public has not been educated on why they are selling it or about them selling it,” Woodard began. Woodard had in his hand a copy of the bid proposal, he said.
“It’s nearly like it’s secretive,” he pointed out. “The bid supposedly states it’s 173 plus or minus acres they are selling. Supposedly, it’s prime lakefront property,” said Woodard.
“And they are taking sealed bids on it. It doesn’t make sense to me that we’ve got some prime lakefront property and we’re going to sell it secretively. We are not going to advertise it,” Woodard continued.
“We’re not going to promote it. We’re not going to have a live auction. It seems like there’s a lot of fishy stuff going on,” Woodard pointed out.
“If I am going to present this to the public from a superintendent’s standpoint, I want to get all of the money I can possibly get for this land,” he continued.
Woodard exclaimed the sale of the property should be public or publicly advertised because the proceeds benefit a public school system.
Woodard also questioned the criteria in which the statements for proposals were sent out.
“Our school board members don’t even know about it. How did other people find out about it?” Woodard questioned.
“It’s almost like Greg Pendley has him a buyer picked out already that’s going to buy this property and pad his pocket,” Woodard pointed out.
“I don’t care what they get for (the property), but I feel like the principals, the school teachers, parents, the kids, all stakeholders involved, have an obligation to know they are going to be selling it and, after we sell this land, what are we spending it on,” Woodard pointed out.
“Are we buying new trucks for the school board? Are we giving the superintendent a raise? Or are we spending it on our kids for textbooks, to get better ChromeBooks? What are you doing with the money?” Woodard asked.
“You don’t just up and sell your nest egg because your superintendent wants to,” Woodard said.
Winston County Commission Chairman Roger Hayes noted the decision to sell the 16th section property was a local board of education decision.
“What matters is the public, what their thoughts are on it,” Hayes said.
“That is what they’ve got a school board for,” added Hayes. “The people elected them. Surely, they will address anything that anyone has to be addressed about it.”
Board gave Pendley authority to
sending out for bids
Winston BOE President Joey Boteler refuted the claim that the idea of bid proposals was only Pendley’s. He stated the board had already given Pendley the authority to proceed with sending out the property for bid.
“He can’t sell it until we make that final decision,” Boteler pointed out. “We told him to go ahead and put it (out) and see what we could do.
“Just because we put it out on the market doesn’t mean we are going to sell it either,” Boteler pointed out. “It will be a local board decision.”
Boteler described the unique financial opportunity for the board, if the property does sell.
“It’s according to what price it might bring,” he said. “What it can do for the board is for the future, to be some income we could use if times got bad again.
“We can invest that so the future of the Winston County school system may not have to struggle the way we have struggled over the last 20 years,” Boteler added.
“There were times where we had to let teachers go. Maybe if this sells for what it can, that can be a cushion we can fall back on,” Boteler said.
See complete story in the Northwest Alabamian.