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Lawrence board still stuck on plans for consolidation

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

MOULTON — The 'C' word was the topic of debate at a Lawrence County Board of Education work session Monday.

Board members agreed that consolidation, which officials often call the 'C' word because of its negative connotation to some, is necessary if the county wants to improve educational opportunities for its students. However, as in meetings on the issue that have occurred frequently over the last 20 years, the board failed to agree on a path to consolidate.

Superintendent Dexter Rutherford called the work session to discuss capitol-project plans should the state approve a bond issue to be distributed in the spring or early summer.

He said Gov. Bob Riley told school officials last week that the state has nearly $1 billion set aside for school construction projects. If the Legislature approves the bond issue, the bond will be the largest in state history.

New or existing schools?

Rutherford presented two options to the board on how to spend the potential bond money: repair existing school facilities or construct a new school or schools while realigning the system.

School realignment, or consolidation, is vital to ensuring Lawrence County students receive the kind of high-school education required to do well in college, said Rutherford.

The school system is currently struggling to operate seven high schools with fewer than 2,000 students. In comparison, Decatur operates two high schools with about 2,500 students.

Schools receive state and federal funding for teachers based on how many students are enrolled in the system. Financing teachers to provide a "bare-minimum" curriculum at each of the high schools is already straining the county's education budget, said Rutherford.

That leaves no additional money for elective courses like athletics or fine arts. For example, none of the high schools offers driver's education, and only some offer ROTC or band.

Two-school plan

Rutherford urged the board to adopt a resolution to pursue a two-school plan that would consist of East Lawrence High School and a new school in the Western part of the county.

The plan would put all ninth-through-12th-grade students currently attending Hubbard, Hatton, Hazlewood, Lawrence County High and Mount Hope schools at the new facility. Speake students would join the students already attending East Lawrence High School.

The new facility would likely be on Alabama 157 between Moulton and Loosier.

Kindergarten through eighth grade would remain the same.

Three-school plan

The most recent consolidation plan presented to the board was a three-high-school plan that also included construction of a new school in the western part of the county. The board did not pursue the plan after running into conflict with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The superintendent and the NAACP couldn't reach an agreement on where to place the new school. The superintendent wanted to construct the building in a central location offering the least amount of travel to affected students.

However, the NAACP said white flight would ensure that the western high school would be a majority black school and that the board should build it in District 1, the only majority black district in Lawrence County.

Rutherford's new plan could solve that problem. The two high schools would be almost evenly distributed with about a 35-to-65 ratio of blacks to whites.

One-school plan

Another proposal that has generally lacked public support is a one-school plan. Board members have said it would force them to cut too many employees.

Rutherford said the school system would not have to cut teachers with the two-school plan. The teachers would be redistributed to teach elective courses that the county currently is not able to offer.

During the work session, it appeared board members were prepared to adopt a resolution stating the county would pursue the two-school plan.

But upon reconvening for the scheduled board meeting, members were reluctant to show support for any specific plan without first gauging community support.

Rutherford expressed disappointment and said he was "leery of leaving without an established plan," but board members insisted that they would approve only a generic realignment concept.

Chairman Bobby Diggs, who represents District 1, said he is open to a two-school plan but will continue to support a three-school concept.

District 2 board member Gary Bradford, who was sworn in Monday, was apprehensive about the term "pursue" and wanted to change it to "consider," but Rutherford insisted that the term was only to imply intent and would not legally bind the board to any particular path.

"I don't want to go out to the community and say that we're considering it because we've been doing that for years now," said District 3 board member Beth Vinson.

After much discussion, the board approved a resolution to "pursue a capital project plan for the Lawrence County school system that includes the realignment of grades nine through 12."

Though no set plans have been made, board members said now is the time to act.

"I don't see when this money could come again, and I don't want people who are still stuck in this situation 25 years from now looking at us and saying, 'You had the money then. Why didn't you do something?' " said Vinson.

The board will hold forums in each community to discuss realignment starting in mid-January.

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