Gulf Shores Schools are “Making Waves”
School is in session for long awaited city schools system
By Fran Thompson
It was two years in the making, but Gulf Shores City Council, along with its brand new school system’s superintendent, various department heads, school board members and city staff finally saw their push for an independent school system come to fruition when they lined up for a ribbon cutting in front of Gulf Shores Middle School on Friday, August 9.
About 90 minutes prior, school bells rang out for the first time ever at Gulf Shores City Schools.
“It went really well considering it was a whole new traffic flow. It’s the first day. So a lot of elementary parents would park and get out, but it went really, really well,’’ said superintendent Matt Akin. “When you look at starting June 1, this was very ambitious. A lot of work has gone into making this happen.’’
Akin, the Huntsville school superintendent for the previous 18 months, was the only candidate interviewed for the Gulf Shores job and the new system he has been hired to oversee is already generating a buzz for its innovative curriculum.
Spanish and algebra classes will part of the GSES curriculum. AP standard classes will be offered beginning in grade 6. A virtual academy has already been established for 6th – 12th graders. Progress monitoring software was also updated at all three schools.
A new reading curriculum was added at GSES and physical science classes are now part of the 8th grade curriculum. A drone class is even a student option at GSHS, and local history will be taught in the elementary school.
“Fourth grade is Alabama history and state-mandated, but we are really going to focus on Gulf Shores history,” Akin said. “We’re going to teach those same standards for the whole state, but we also want our kids to be aware of the history of this area and this city.
“We’re going to teach Gulf Coast ecology. We already teach an ecology class at the high school, but we are going to specifically focus on the Gulf Coast.”
The coastal environment classes will be emphasized through a partnership with the Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability, located adjacent to the campus.
The Gulf Coast Center for Ecotourism and Sustainability is part a $9.7 million Restore Act-funded project at the Gulf State Park Learning Campus. Classes and programs offered there will focus on teaching students environmental stewardship and also be open to other students from Baldwin County and beyond.
A partnership with the internationally renowned Cousteau Foundation will also touch Gulf Shores Schools through an Ambassadors to the Environment learning program. Travis Langen is the executive director of the new center.
“These kinds of programs are exactly what we were hoping to accomplish,” Mayor Robert Craft said.
In addition to extensive renovations and a new security system featuring cameras linked directly to GSPD, the new campus includes virtual fencing, rain canopys at drop-off stations and lots of new signage.
Five portable classrooms were moved and three others eliminated. Additional parking was added at GSHS. A new teacher parking lot was built in front of GSES, and a brand new state-of-the-art playground was built in the interior of the campus.
The campus entry ways incorporate a new logo and slogan – “Makin’ Waves.” The City of Gulf Shores will oversee landscaping for the entire campus.
A major road widening project on two of the campus entrances was designed to keep traffic from backing up on 2nd St.
And it worked even on opening day thanks in part to extra help from GSPD officers directing traffic at all three entrances to help parents get acclimated.
The city’s 14 school buses enter and leave campus via Dolphin Way. Four of those buses will be making double trips until the city can purchase more vehicles.
No less an authority than school board member Nicky Gotschall said after dropping off her 8th grader that “it was the fastest I’ve ever gone through the line.’’
School Board members Kevin Corcoran, (president), Kelly Walker, (secretary), Dale Jernigan and new member Frank Malone (replacing Ralph R. Gold, Jr.) also participated in the ribbon cutting ceremony.
Regular School Board meetings are held the second Thursday of every month at Gulf Shores City Hall at 5 p.m. These meetings are open to the public and input from the community will always be welcome, according to Corcoran.
Mayor Craft, obviously proud to see one of his legacy projects come alive, compared the opening to Christmas.
“This is a historic moment for everyone in our community,” he said. “We are going to do whatever it takes to create a school system that is second to none.”
As Akin noted, The Gulf Shores School System, a first for a city in Baldwin County, was not official until June 1, even though Gulf Shores City Council voted to break off from Baldwin County in the fall of 2017.
The decision came immediately after Baldwin County announced plans to build a new high school in Orange Beach and use the former GSHS for an elementary school in Gulf Shores.
The City has also introduced the Dolphin Foundation for Education and Arts as a community fundraising arm of its school system. A similar group, the Makos Academics, Arts and Athletics Club, recently formed in Orange Beach.
Since voting to start its own system, Gulf Shores City Council has allocated nearly $5 million to fund it.
“Most of that is $2 million in salaries and benefits, about $440,000 in instructional supplies, $200,000 in technology equipment and maintenance tools, $157,000 for a new security system within the three buildings and then $220,000 in operations,” Akin told the council in July.
“With the separation agreement and in an effort to settle with the board to start the school system, we gave up the sales tax for summer months which is about $2.5 million and then also about $1 million in September payroll.”
In lieu of losing that tax revenue, Gulf Shores also negotiated for Baldwin County to continue to pay about $500,000 of yearly debt service for five years on the buildings and facilities – about $2.85 million – to free up funds for work on the Gulf Shores buildings.
“We’re actually going to get that (tax) money back over five years and really get back more than we gave up so it was a good deal in the long run,” Akin said. “Short term we all knew we were going to be a little bit short this summer going into the fall.”
Mayor Craft praised the moves as exactly what he and the city council expect out of the new system.
“We knew it was going to be an expensive process given the condition of the schools,” he said.
Mayor Craft said the city has budgeted funds to run the school system up until the point that major capital improvements, namely a new elementary or high school, are needed.
He doesn’t know how soon that will be. But the school will be built on the northside of the Intracoastal Waterway.
At that point, he said, City Council will ask citizens to approve a property tax increase, probably three mils, to pay for the growth.
“It just all depends on how fast we grow. The elementary school is already full,’’ he said. “We do want small classes – low student- teacher ratios.’’
“I expect we will ask for a modest millage increase in a couple of years. I think everybody knows that,’’ said City Councilman Steve Jones.
Pictured: Aug. 9 ribbon cutting ceremony introducing Gulf Shores City Schools.