Mobile County school board to BP: Build us a career-tech school


MOBILE, Alabama — Expecting a loss in tax revenue because of the oil spill, Mobile County school officials are getting in line with business owners, fishermen, government agencies and others who are asking BP PLC for money.

State schools Superintendent Joe Morton plans to file monthly claims with BP on behalf of all Alabama schools, which will lose tax revenue from declining tourism. He’s still working on the first one, according to a spokeswoman.

Expecting to lose substantially more than just tourism revenues, however, Mobile County schools will be trying to reach a bigger deal with BP.

Several lawyers have called asking to represent the state’s largest school system if it decides to sue, said Mobile County schools Superintendent Roy Nichols.

But a lawyer could walk away with 30 percent of the award as his fee, as was the case when the system successfully sued Volkert & Associates Inc. for $9 million for building schools with leaky roofs and other problems.

Instead, Nichols and members of the school board have said they might be satisfied if BP would step up and build the stand-alone, career-technical academy that local officials have wanted for years but have been unable to afford.

It would be a good public relations move on the part of BP, school officials said.

“I would rather not go to court if we could reach some amicable settlement,” Nichols said.

In Baldwin County, school officials are working with the state to try to calculate the revenue losses. System spokesman Terry Wilhite said that 10 percent of Baldwin’s school budget comes from tourism revenue.

Wilhite said that Baldwin would enter the claims process, but he wasn’t sure whether it would make one or multiple claims.

A new career-tech school for Mobile County would cost $15 million to $20 million, according to past estimates.

Although the school would accept students countywide, board President Bill Meredith has suggested that it be built in south Mobile County, where the spill has thrown many fishermen and others out of work.

Several years ago, officials shut down the former Shaw High in northwest Mobile in order to establish the career-tech school there, but plans fell through. Now, a magnet middle school is located at Shaw.

Representatives of BP have spoken with Mobile County school officials about their concerns, said Dawn Patience, a local spokeswoman for BP. But so far, the school system has not filed a claim or made any other formal request.

“If the district decides to file a claim with BP, it will be considered under the existing claims process,” Patience said.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990 does include in its list of legitimate claims the loss of government revenues, she said.

So far, BP has given $50 million to the state for recovery efforts, $15 million for tourism and $5 million to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab to study the impacts of the spill.

Nichols said it could be years before the school system knows the total financial impact of the oil spill. He said that the system stands to lose revenue from income taxes because people are out of work; from property taxes as people shut businesses and lose homes through foreclosure; and sales taxes as people have less money to spend.

The board has appointed two representatives — Meredith and board member Reginald Crenshaw — to meet with Gov. Bob Riley’s staff to discuss the options of schools statewide.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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