MONTGOMERY COUNTY, AL (WSFA) - The Montgomery County Commission passed the largest budget in history on Monday of $107 million.
Public safety earned the most of any county department, with $35 million in the budget to the sheriff's office, county jail, EMA and the Department of Youth Services.
The budget also covers a merit raise for all county employees.
Concerns about education funding were also a big talker for the county commission.
Commissioners said they've more than doubled the amount of funding that goes to MPS in recent years, but don't know exactly how the money is being used.
Conditions at one magnet school were discussed.
During the meeting, Montgomery County Commissioner Isaiah Sankey read a letter from a student at Booker T. Washington Magnet High School asking for help.
The student called the conditions in the school horrific, frightening and tragic in her letter, writing that classes were moved due to unhealthy amounts of mildew build up, paint peeling off bathrooms and classrooms walls, reports of holes in floors, rats in classes, and she says the library was shut down last year due to bats.
She asked that BTW be moved to a new facility with better, cleaner classrooms or that the currently facility be completely renovated.
MPS officials say things mentioned in the letter, like the bats closing the library, aren't true.
"We have millions of square feet of schools under roof. Some of our schools are over 100 years old. Most of our schools were built in the mid-1900s so we have some issues but we don't have the kinds of problems that were described today at the county commission," said MPS Spokesman Tom Salter.
BTW's principal, Dr. Quesha Starks, provided an all-access tour of the school on Monday. There are signs of an aging facility but our cameras didn't capture anything alarming in the library, classrooms or restrooms.
Two baby bats were found in the school last year and they were removed. As a precaution, the whole building was closed for several hours and sanitized from top to bottom. There's been one report of a mouse in a counselor's office. Spots of possible mold or mildew are from heavy rains or leaking air conditioning units and Dr. Starks referred any questions about that to MPS operations management.
She confirms they have an old facility and are in need of a new one, a school that accommodates their special programs and students' needs.
Commissioner Sankey, who went to BTW when it was a junior high school, says he visited with Dr. Starks to give her a donation from his discretionary fund, but he did not get a chance to tour the facility in detail.
He saw basic needs for upkeep and repairs, but did not get a chance to observe all of the areas mentioned by the student in her letter, but he stands behind the author.
Sankey and other commissioners say more needs to be done to improve the infrastructure at all MPS schools. They called for more accountability when it comes to the $26 million the County gives to MPS annually from a one cent sales tax, passed more than a decade ago.
"That amount fluctuates. It's a sales tax so the amount collected annually fluctuates based on sales. Roughly that number is about $26-27 million and those monies are specifically designated to go to education in Montgomery County," said Montgomery County Commission Vice Chairman Ronda Walker.
Before the one cent sales tax was passed, the county gave a lump sum of about $12 million to MPS.
"We have more than doubled the amount of money we give to education because we're committed to education in Montgomery. Historically, we've just turned it over the school system with absolutely no conversation, absolutely no accountability, absolutely no idea of how they were going to spend it. We trusted them with that money," Walker stated.
With so many problems and frustrations with the school system with failing schools and test scores, Walker says the commission has asked MPS what's being done with their portion of the MPS budget.
"We haven't been able to get good information on that, a good line item on how those monies are spent," she added. "Over the past couple of years, the county commission has gotten much more interested and set out to demand to know how those monies are spent."
The county commission now working with the State Department of Education with its intervention of MPS.
"The money given through the sales tax to education are specifically earmarked by law, they have to go to education in Montgomery County. They do not have to go to the Montgomery Public School Board. They can stay with the county and the county can determine how those monies are dispersed," Walker said. "We're not doing that at this time, but that's a conversation that needs to had because if things don't begin to improve because the responsibility is on us as county commissioners and leaders to step in and do something."
She acknowledged issues with buildings in the schools system.
"It's a shame, really," Walker stated. "We have done bond issues to provide MPS money to build Park Crossing, and Carver and MPACT and LAMP. We've done all of that. That's not their money. It's money that's come through the county and the city. The fact that these older schools have just been left to deteriorate is incredibly frustrating and it's time we stop letting it happen."
"We work very hard to keep thing as clean and as neat as we can for our students," Salter added. "We have some issues because we have 52 schools and a very small staff unfortunately of maintenance people."