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Lawrence officials tour merged high school
Board members exploring options on consolidation

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

GADSDEN — Lawrence County school officials are doing their homework before deciding on a realignment plan for the system's seven high schools.

The Board of Education approved a resolution Monday to "pursue a capital project plan for the Lawrence County school system that includes the realignment of grades nine through 12." Though Superintendent Dexter Rutherford urged board members to approve a two- high school plan, members failed to agree on a specific path to consolidation.

While board members are exploring their options, many are visiting area schools that consolidated.

Looking at Gadsden

One is Gadsden City High School, the school constructed when the Gadsden City Board of Education consolidated its three former high schools.

Rutherford visited the school last week, and Chairman Bobby Diggs and Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vicki Morese toured the facility Wednesday.

According to Gadsden City High Assistant Principal Peter Rowe, the incentives for his school system's consolidation are similar to the potential benefits of a Lawrence County consolidation.

"The biggest reason was to offer more to the kids in the system," he said. "We were dividing resources three ways — not only finances, but manpower. The thought was that if we bring everyone together, we can offer a broader curriculum, and that's been the case."

The school system wasn't able to finance teachers for many Advanced Placement classes, arts, athletics and other elective courses at the three schools.

While touring the $40-million facility, Rowe impressed Diggs and Morese with the school's piano, computer and broadcasting labs. Gadsden high students now are able to participate on the school's wrestling, swimming and track teams.

Lawrence County is hoping to expand its curriculum through consolidation. The school system does not offer many courses found in larger schools like driver education and only offers band and JROTC in some of the high schools.

Despite the expected rewards, the consolidation issue in Lawrence County faces heavy opposition from the community. Many parents and students fear long driving times or bus rides, and some parents want their children to attend the same neighborhood school they attended.

The Board of Education decided Monday to hold forums in each community to respond to concerns and gather ideas regarding consolidation. The meetings will begin mid-January.

Diggs asked Rowe how Gadsden board members facilitated their meetings. The difference between the two system's methods is that Gadsden officials went to the citizens with a specific plan rather than waiting for community response to make a decision.

Diggs was concerned about making huge decisions without first gauging community support.

"The Board of Education is there to make those decisions," said Rowe. "It's their role, and quite frankly, that's the only response you can have to that."

Diggs said that, unlike Gadsden board members, the Lawrence County Board of Education is elected and, therefore, has a responsibility to represent the citizens.

Rutherford's two-school plan would consist of East Lawrence High School and a new school in the western region of the county.

The plan would put all ninth- through 12th-grade students 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.

If approved, the two schools would be evenly racially distributed, likely ending a longstanding federal desegregation court order. Rutherford has also said that no employees would be cut due to consolidation.

Rowe said the Gadsden Board of Education did not cut staff during the consolidation. They are overstaffed but will lose employees due to attrition.

Gadsden City High School Principal Ed Miller stressed to the visiting officials that consolidation is not a cost-saving measure.

"It's not about saving money," he said. "It's about ... taking the money spent to have two teachers giving the same class and instead using them to offer different classes. It's more like redistributing the wealth."

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