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Lawrence supports realignment of schools

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — The Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce took a public stand in the controversial school-realignment debate Tuesday night.

Following the 2006 report and announcement of 2007 initiatives, chamber President Kenneth Brackins said chamber members intend to fully support realigning county schools.

"Education is critical for our county," he said. "One of our programs of work for 2007 is to work closely with the school board to realign the schools in order to improve educational opportunities for Lawrence County students."

Realignment has been a controversial issue since school officials first tossed the idea around nearly 20 years ago.

The school system is struggling to operate seven high schools with less than 2,000 students.

In comparison, Decatur operates two high schools with about 2,500 students.

Financing teachers for each school strains the system's budget, preventing the county from providing anything more than a "bare-minimum" curriculum, said Superintendent Dexter Rutherford.

"One of our major issues is that we have seven high schools ranging in size from very small to average," he said. "We are only able to offer the basics as far as academics."

Declining enrollment

Compounding the problem is the recent trend of declining enrollment that decreases the amount of state and federal funds the county is eligible to receive.

Atlanta-based consultant Steve Salmon told board members in July that an expected loss of 1,040 students by 2015 could leave Lawrence County financially in the red.

Many potential solutions have been presented over the years, but none have panned out due to complaints from citizens or agencies.

Consolidating all the high schools into one central location and realigning school districts to close two or more of the schools are two options that have come close to fruition.

Board high school plan

As recently as June, the Board of Education was planning to move forward with a three-high-school plan that involved the construction of a new high school in the western region of the county.

Plans stalled, however, after the superintendent and the NAACP were unable to agree on where to place the school.

Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vicki Morese said the chamber is encouraging the Board of Education to implement a realignment plan and is available for financial and logistical support.

"Ultimately, the responsibility lies with the elected board," she said.

"But we are here to provide research or funding for studies, and we're also a forum for public input."

Better education

Morese said a better education system affects all aspects of life in the county, including business growth.

"When our education system gets to a level where people are moving into Lawrence County rather than away from it, businesses will prosper," she said.

The county may get some relief if the state Legislature agrees to a school construction bond issue for the 2007 session. If approved, the bond issue would be the first from the state since 1999 and would likely be the largest in Alabama history, said Rutherford.

The Board of Education meets Monday at 2 p.m. to discuss capital projects should the bond issue be approved.

"We are in the early planning stages in terms of capital project opportunities," he said. "Of course, if it doesn't come through, we're wasting our time, but we don't need to wait until it happens to develop a plan."

New officers for Lawrence chamber

The Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday elected the following officers for 2007:

President: Danny Whitmon

First Vice President: Kathy Graham

Second Vice President: Micah Coffey

Treasurer: Jackie Peek

The chamber also added new board members, Tammy Reist, CEO of Decatur-Morgan County Visitors Bureau, and Tom Dunning, CEO of Lawrence Medical Center.

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