When termites swarmed her classroom at Forest Avenue Elementary School last year, Kris Culpepper turned it into a learning experience. The Montgomery, Ala., kindergarten teacher had her students build models of the pests and display them at a colorful “bug ball.”
But transforming the infestation into enlightenment did nothing to make the 71-year-old school more habitable. Although Forest Avenue serves as a magnet school in the state’s capital, it is so run-down and so overcrowded that most children attend class in 30 “portables,” a stark maze of white trailers flanking the crumbling redbrick building. “They’re just these nasty shells of a box,” says Becky Cumbie, whose two children attended Forest Avenue.
There is irony in woodboring insects crowding students out of classrooms: Timber is one of the state’s largest sources of wealth. Forest-related industries supply the largest number of manufacturing jobs — 70,000—and timber is the most lucrative agricultural crop, generating $1.4 billion annually. However, little of that wealth makes its way toward education. Although public schools traditionally rely on property taxes for most of their funding, timber and agriculture interests in Alabama have rigged the law to avoid paying their fair share.
Forest owners pay property taxes at half the rate of other Alabama businesses. Timber interests pay as little as 86 cents an acre—half the rate in Georgia and one-fifth the rate in Florida and Mississippi. To recruit forest industries to rural areas, Alabama has also exempted all taxes on close to $4 billion worth of property owned by pulp and paper mills.
The big winners: out-of-state and global timber companies. International Paper, Weyerhaeuser, Boise-Cascade, and other forest-product conglomerates own almost a quarter of the 21 million acres of private forests in the state.
The big losers: children. Low property taxes on forestland rob Alabama schools of an estimated $25 million each year, and industrial tax breaks for paper mills claim another $25 million. In Alabama’s Lawrence County, Connecticut-based Champion International pays no taxes on the world’s largest white-paper mill, pocketing what would otherwise go to schools each year ($1.2 million in 1993 alone).
“Essentially, the tax abatements gave away a huge part of the reason you offer abatements to attract industry in the first place,” says Auburn University forestry professor John Bliss. “The public schools have not benefited from the economic injection of billions of dollars from the pulp and paper industry. And yet, the same companies that benefit from the tax breaks can’t hire entry-level employees from the high schools in their counties to come in on the mill floor, because the kids can’t read the time sheets.”
Last year, Alabama ranked 49th in education funding—spending only $4,810 per student. According to the Alabama Association of School Boards, the state would have to provide an extra $790 million a year simply to match the average funding of its 11 Southeastern neighbors. The result is historically low test scores, high dropout rates, and outdated textbooks. “In history classes, I think it matters when we haven’t got to the moon yet,” says former Coosa County school superintendent Larry Hardman.
Last January, the Alabama Supreme Court upheld a 1993 circuit court decision that declared school funding inadequate, inequitable, and unconstitutional, and ordered reforms. Politically savvy timber companies and their allies, however, have made sure the tax law stays on their side. Since 1988, educators and parents have proposed raising local property taxes 48 times. All but 15 of the measures have failed.
Their main opposition is the Alabama Farmers Federation, better known as Alfa. Although the organization says it represents local farmers, it essentially serves as a front for forest and agricultural conglomerates. Working closely with the industry to fight timber taxes, a network of Alfa-related organizations has reportedly given close to $7 million to Alabama political candidates since 1992. Over the same period, timber owners would have paid close to an extra $150 million in taxes if the state had assessed forests at their full value.
Last year in Tuscaloosa County, where 40 percent of the schoolchildren attend classes in trailers, education advocates tried to levy a tax to build new schools. A barrage of Alfa-financed advertisements against the measure hit the area—appearing on television, newspapers, billboards, and even yard signs. Campaign records from the county courthouse show that the local chapter of the farm group paid $26,247 to school-tax opponents, providing 82 percent of their funding. The school tax failed by a 2-to-1 margin.
“With Alfa on its side, the timber industry has got a good thing going,” says Wayne Flynt, a noted historian who was appointed by the state Supreme Court to mediate reform. “Homeowners support the public schools, but they don’t feel like they should pay more when timber is taxed so low. Many people say, ‘I’ll consider increasing my taxes when the big timber companies increase theirs.'”
Meanwhile, it’s the schools that are dumped on—literally. In May, educators from across the state gathered in the auditorium at Lawrence County High School to discuss the plight of the county’s schools. A waste disposal system in the building malfunctioned, flooding the hallway with raw sewage.
Eric Bates is a staff writer with the Independent Weekly in Durham, North Carolina, and a recipient of the Pope Foundation Journalism Award.