Lots of salty language coming out of Orange Beach these days, and I don’t think it has anything to do with proximity to the Gulf.
Last week we had a story about the brand new school system being short on its required match for state funding. It wasn’t well-received by OBA leadership — even leading Mayor Tony Kennon to use an avian scatological reference with our reporter. Rather unseemly for a guy who was so offended by a new business called Badass Coffee, that he, as the mayor, more or less encouraged people not to go there.
I guess coffee is one thing, coverage is another.
Our story about the new Orange Beach City School system being $4.6 million in the hole to the state apparently switched the mayor out of Ward Cleaver mode. In a phone call with reporter Brady Petree last Friday, he whined about our coverage of this deficit, deriding it as “chicken shit” and — my personal favorite — “a click bait weasel thing for the Lagniappe to do.” The “pissed” mayor also demanded an apology and retraction.
That was followed up on Friday with a letter from OBCS Superintendent Randy Wilkes also asking us for a retraction of the story. Demand away mon frères.
Why all the histrionics? Mostly it seems they’re upset we didn’t just go away when they tried to tell us there’s no story here.
Of course it is news anytime a school system is short of money, but that’s especially the case when you’re talking about a brand new system pushed through without discussion or debate by the City Council, after showing up on the agenda just a few hours before the meeting. Let’s also keep in mind, there was no public referendum for the formation of the system. In 2014, Orange Beach voters rejected a 5-mill property tax increase that would have gone to a city school system.
“I think it’s the way it’s always supposed to be done, when possible. Let the people vote,” Kennon said at the time. But he didn’t appear to be in nearly as democratic a mood last year.
Just a couple of months after its formation, OBCS had its lawyer writing to Alabama Department of Education Superintendent Eric Mackey asking him to simply waive the 10 mill Foundation Program match it holds all the other school systems in the state to. So far, Mackey hasn’t jumped at the opportunity to treat OBCS differently than everyone else.
None of this is even brand new information. We did a story back in the fall about whether Orange Beach’s system was short on money. A news site in Orange Beach actually got a copy of Mackey’s letter declining the invitation to waive the $4.6 million the system owes and reported on it more than a month ago.
We would have written a story back then as well, but the school system stonewalled us on releasing the letter for more than a month. Wilkes last lame attempt at withholding the document was to claim he wasn’t its “custodian.” Huh? It’s a letter from the state about school funding, not a small child. I know, public documents can be a real buzzkill sometimes.
And that’s really what sticks out here — it appears clear the system has a problem meeting the 10 mill match, but instead of explaining how they plan to rectify the situation, school leaders and the mayor think it’s really nobody’s business, and that we’re being salacious writing about the very, very sexy subject of public school taxes. Rrrrrowwww! It’s gettin’ hot in here!
I know this is a novel idea, but how about simply telling the public how you plan to fix things without getting your (bad coffee word) on your shoulders? Telling the newspaper “there’s no story here” is a classically unsuccessful way to diffuse bad press. Telling a reporter his story is “chickenshit” may actually be an even less successful way of convincing anyone things are under control.
To be fair, though, Orange Beach is in a unique position in that it can continue raising lodging taxes, which essentially passes those expenses off to visitors. A 2020 report showed Orange Beach had seen its lodging tax receipts up 117 percent when compared to 2014, so it may be even higher now. Perhaps Wilkes is diving into a pool of gold coins each afternoon like Scrooge McDuck and that debt to the state is nothin’ but a thing. Although some might wonder if it’s not a problem, why beg for them to waive it?
The bottom line is we’ve been told over and over there’s a plan, but no one will say what it is, and when you ask they wet their pants about it. Whether OBCS ends up paying the state $4.6 million or not, this attitude doesn’t bode well for transparency going forward. Orange Beach citizens should keep their eyes open.
All of this raises the bigger question of whether city leaders knew the numbers didn’t match up when they pushed the system through so quickly. If that’s the case, nobody from the city ever explained that to the taxpayers before it was passed.
Kennon’s behavior over the years would suggest he’s something of an autocrat, especially when it comes to how you sell hot beverages in his town or form school systems, but losing it so badly over this story feels like something else. It feels like someone’s not being totally open about what happened and their plans to fix it. That’s just my take after 30-plus years of dealing with public officials.
If it’s not a big deal, then just explain it. That’s what elected and appointed officials have to do sometimes. We’ll be happy to report the plan.