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Balch plans to ask board to divide Priceville school

By Bayne Hughes 340-2432

Bob Balch just officially became Morgan County Schools superintendent, but he's not avoiding the controversial issues facing his fledgling administration.

After taking his oath of office from his brother, Ed, in a Tuesday afternoon ceremony, Balch said he plans to ask the board to split Priceville High School into a grades 6-8 middle school and a grades 9-12 high school Thursday at a called school board meeting.

Balch said he also plans to ask the board to let him hire a personnel director. Margaret McLemore handled personnel and human resources duties before retiring in December as former Superintendent Don Murphy's secretary.

The former Brewer High teacher/coach has been working unofficially on school system issues since his November election. He officially moved out of the classroom and into the central office Dec. 1. He is spending most of his time focusing on three major central office vacancies: directors of secondary education and the Child Nutrition Program and his secretary position.

Two candidates, Brewer teacher Mary Ellen Holmes and Priceville High teacher Mary Beth Henry, applied for the CNP director position left vacant with the retirement of Susan Emmons. Both teach family and consumer science.

"I've been extremely busy," Balch said after the swearing-in in front of close to 50 supporters and the school board. "We've in the middle of a transition. We've got several vacant positions, and there are several key issues facing the school system."

Priceville High is only 6 years old, but it's in one of the county's fastest growing towns. The board split the school off from Brewer High in 2001 as a grades 6-12 school. Priceville High School Principal Guy Bowling said enrollment in the six grades is more than 800 students.

Priceville and Falkville are the only county high schools that include middle school students. Balch said Falkville's enrollment does not justify splitting its grades into two schools.

The board considered splitting Priceville into two schools in 2005 when it split West Morgan into a grades 5-8 middle school and a 9-12 high school. While Murphy did not want to split Priceville at the time, even though it is larger than West Morgan, he said the board would probably have to consider the issue at a later date.

At Tuesday's swearing-in ceremony, several board members said they would favor splitting Priceville as long as it doesn't mean additional cost to the school system, which already is facing a financial crunch. The school board projects finishing the 2007 fiscal budget year with $1.6 million in reserves when the state wants the board to have $4.2 million, equal to one month of operating expenses.

When the board split West Morgan, it promoted Bruce Sparkman from high school assistant principal to middle school principal. His $3,500 raise was the only expense in the split as the two remain under one roof.

Both are using the same office staff, and the high school did not get an assistant principal to replace Sparkman. Sources tell the Daily that working without a middle school office has been difficult at best.

The school system is also losing money from federal e-rate grant funding because of the split. The grant the funds technology purchases is based on the percentage of students qualifying for the free-or-reduced lunch program.

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