Superintendent: First Solar money to lift Lawrence education

Nov. 27—MOULTON — The planned First Solar plant in Lawrence County is expected to produce more than $43 million in new tax revenue for the county's school system in the next two decades, and officials' ideas on how to spend the windfall range from building and repairing schools to offering new courses.

The $900 million solar panel module manufacturing facility, which was announced earlier this month will have about $69 million in noneducational state and local taxes waived over two decades as part of incentives for the plant to locate in Lawrence County. But educational taxes aren't abated 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 across 20 years.

Superintendent Jon Bret Smith said the additional tax revenue will benefit a school system that has operated on tight budgets since 2014 when International Paper closed its Courtland mill that was the county's largest employer at the time.

"First Solar locating here is a true blessing to the county, and the school system will certainly welcome the additional tax revenue," Smith said. "We have several schools that need updating or need to be replaced. We know more teachers can be locally funded. There are some academic offerings and opportunities to improve our athletic facilities."

He said Hatton High School has 115 new students this year following the permanent closure of R.A. Hubbard last spring.

"We're at 546 students at Hatton High and it's near capacity," Smith said. "We've got about 70 kids from R.A. Hubbard and the other kids live out of district and wanted to come to the school or are simply new students to the county. It's a great problem to have."

He listed the three East Lawrence campuses and Hazlewood Elementary among schools needing updating.

"Hazlewood Elementary is an older school that needs some issues addressed," said Smith, who has served as superintendent since 2016. "We'll go around the county and look at our capital improvement needs. The age of our roofs is a concern."

First-term board member Delandrion Woods, representing District 1 in the northern part of the county, said he favors a new K-12 school eventually being built in his district.

"First, I want to ensure every student and every teacher in the county system have the supplies and resources they need to learn and teach," he said.

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

"We have Hazlewood Elementary and it has age on it. I'd like to see some of this tax money be used in maybe five to 10 years to put a K-12 school in the district. That is something we'll address in a few years," Woods said.

A federal judge in April sided with the school board's recommendation to close R.A. Hubbard in North Courtland mainly because of its 147-student enrollment in grades 7-12. The cost-per-student was $18,030 at Hubbard and standardized test scores were consistently low, school system data showed.

District 5 school board member Reta Waldrep said she supports the system repairing roofs, paying down debt and putting some money away in its reserve. "We have had leaks in the roof at East Lawrence Elementary that we have patched," she said. "Maybe some of that money can go toward replacing that roof. We probably have others around the county that need to be replaced, too."

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 could pay off some debt, but that is a tricky process. You can't just put extra money down like you can if you have an extra $10,000 to pay down a mortgage on your house. A lot depends on timing of when the bonds mature. Most of our debt is tied to capital improvement projects some a couple of decades ago. We'll certainly look at what we can do."

Adding classes such as family and consumer science, formerly known as home economics, and life skills, and improving engineering and robotics classes are on Smith's short list.

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

Improving athletic facilities is on his wish list, too. "We might consider putting a competition track in at the schools," he said. He noted adding artificial turf at some fields might not be feasible because of high, upfront cost.

"We won't rule out anything until we know more," he said.

Smith reiterated that First Solar and any of its suppliers locating in the county will take away some of the sting of International Paper closing. After the Courtland mill closed in March 2014, the school system's sales tax revenue initially fell about $800,000.

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

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

Another major plus, Smith said, is the school system's Career Tech Center in Moulton.

"We're in the process of adding onto the Career Tech Center," he said. "I'm meeting with officials with First Solar and the state training center (this week) about curriculum plans. We believe we can provide First Solar with quality, local employees," he said.

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

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

"If your student is interested in engineering, pharmacy or the medical tech field and going to a college after high school or wants to learn a skill and be ready to join the workforce, the career tech center has plenty of courses to prepare them," Smith said.

Lawrence County Industrial Development Board Chairman Kenneth Brackins said the Lawrence students will have more opportunities with First Solar's arrival. Construction on its 2.4-million-square foot plant in Mallard Fox West industrial Park is expected to begin early next year.

"This company will make a difference in people's lives," Brackins said. "People with a high school diploma can go there and get a good-paying job for some positions. The difference between making minimum wage vs. $26 an hour is vast. It helps you feel good and hopefully not worrying about having a job. There should not be anybody who wants a good paying job and who lives in Lawrence County" who can't obtain one.

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

"We'll closely monitor the growth based on the trends we're seeing," he said. "That is something likely years away. Adding more families to Lawrence County will mean more students. The school system could absorb several hundred more students before we would have to build new schools. We're certainly not ruling out a new school, but that would be a few years down the road." or 256-340-2442. Twitter @DD_Wetzel.