The rule: Pay attention, check your receipts, and shop as you wish.
The cause of confusion, of course, is the recession — and its profound effect on Alabama's public schools. The downturn remains in full bloom, and school administrators long ago
expressed their thanks for the twin 1-cent sales tax ordinances passed by the Calhoun County Commission and the Oxford City Council last year.
Without that added revenue, school systems throughout the county would have been forced to make painful, expansive cuts to personnel and programs. Those taxes have proven their worth.
But last week brought a few alterations to the Aug. 7-9 sales-tax holiday, the much-anticipated weekend where parents can save serious money on a covey of necessary items.
The Calhoun County Commission retained the sales-tax holiday, and it also removed its 1-cent sales tax earmarked for schools.
Meanwhile, the Oxford City Council, encouraged by Mayor Leon Smith, also reaffirmed its participation in the holiday — but it kept intact the 1-cent sales tax for its schools.
In essence, that means anyone who shops in Oxford during the sales-tax holiday will pay 1 cent on the dollar toward Oxford schools. Considering Oxford's residence as a shopping Mecca, that's no insignificant revelation. Or, put another way, shoppers from Anniston, Jacksonville, Heflin, Alexandria, Saks, Wellborn, Weaver or other northeast Alabama communities are likely to donate a tidy bit of cash to the coffers of Oxford City Schools.
There is nothing wrong with either decision. Oxford is within its right to protect the revenue for its schools, and it's difficult to fault the Calhoun County Commission for giving shoppers a brief, three-day tax break.
Nevertheless, it would be an omission not to highlight the underlying problem — again.
Public education in Alabama is tied to a fundamentally flawed system. It's archaic and ineffective to fund schools with sales and income taxes that ebb and flow erratically and, in the case of sales taxes, are at the mercy of shoppers' whims. Recessions only aggravate this predicament.
The 1901 Constitution, Alabama's governing document, concentrates virtually all power in Montgomery; it provides local municipalities and school boards few options. It works as designed.
As a result, public schools are funded by two unreliable revenue streams. What's more, school boards and county commissions can't raise property taxes in schools' time of need. The Constitution mandates that property tax increases go before a vote of the people, which means that idea would die a quick, not-so-painful death.
All of this is part of the confusing public-education picture in Alabama. If the state funded its schools in a more equitable way, in a more efficient way, the issue of a 1-cent sales tax would be no issue at all.