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Lawrence board gains little ground on consolidation

By Kristen Bishop 340-2443

MOULTON — Lawrence County Superintendent Dexter Rutherford and school board members intended to narrow their school realignment options. Instead they ended the night Tuesday with the same number they discussed in December.

One option presented for the first time — a plan to keep the seven current high schools and add a magnet school — was immediately crossed off the list with a 4-1 vote.

"I see the magnet school as elitist," said District 3 board member Beth Vinson. "I can't do it. We're either going to provide good curriculum for all of our students or figure out another solution."

The three remaining options are one-, two- and three-high-school plans.

Rutherford urged board members to eliminate the three-school option. The board appeared to be ready to approve that plan last year but dropped it after running into conflict with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The superintendent said pursuing that plan would have ended in a long court battle, a financial burden he did not want to place on the county.

"I can eliminate a three-high-school plan because you'll have to have a recommendation from me, and I won't go through all that again just to reach a stalemate," said Rutherford. "The way I stand is I'm open to listening to one or two, but the three-school plan — we've gone through that."

Chairman Bobby Diggs said the board had not voted to eliminate the school plan and refused to eliminate the option.

The meeting room was filled with concerned residents, mostly from the Speake community. The board allowed three to voice their concerns regarding realignment.

Kenny Gillespie, a Speake resident who coaches youth league football, presented the board a petition with thousands of county residents' signatures stating they were opposed to consolidation.

"These are people that elected y'all, and they're children that go to these schools," he said. "I can tell you, and all these people can tell you that Speake does not want the realignment."

Gillespie, who has spoken out against realignment at previous meetings, said one of his biggest concerns is how much time students spend on the bus. Consolidation would create a longer drive or bus ride for students living in the outskirts of the county.

Gillespie said some Speake students are already having to get on the bus as early as 6 a.m.

Rutherford has agreed that transportation and driving times would be an issue the board would have to discuss once they establish a realignment plan. He touted the benefits of consolidation as outweighing most concerns.

The main benefit would be the school system's ability to offer a wider curriculum, including Advanced Placement courses and electives. Many Lawrence County high schools currently do not offer band, and none offer driver education.

Brit Nell, who has worked for the school system for 32 years, warned that the realignment plans would likely involve a tax increase. He said the potential bond issue would not be enough to pay for construction of another school.

The three realignment options under consideration all call for a new facility.

"It hasn't even been talked about how much money we're going to get," said Nell. "... You're telling people you're going to get all this for nothing, and it ain't going to happen."

Vinson immediately spoke out against a tax increase.

"If that's what we're talking about, I'm opposing it," she said.

Rutherford said the bond issue should be enough to finance a new facility and that he didn't expect county residents to foot the bill.

"We're not going there," he said.

Jackie Tipper, an advocate for Alabama Arise, said she opposed any form of realignment because small, community schools provide a better learning environment for children.

"Research shows children — particularly those from low-income families — perform better in small, community schools," she said. "If we have three schools, they won't be huge, but they won't be community schools."

Her comments caused the crowd to erupt with applause.

Most residents in attendance appeared to be against any option that included the closure of one of the existing high schools. They also applauded when District 5 board member Wendell Logan said the only plan he would support "at this time is seven high schools with a distance-learning program."

The county has three distance-learning labs that allow students to take Advanced Placement, dual-credit and elective courses online.

Vinson, a professor at Athens State University, said she had taught two distance-learning classes that day. She said they are valuable to the school system but that some students learn better in an actual classroom.

Rutherford said the board's inability to narrow its options doesn't mean the plans are stalled.

"This isn't a sprint. We're looking at a marathon," he said.

Board members agreed to hold a countywide forum at the Lawrence County Coliseum on Feb. 5 after the scheduled board meeting. The board meeting will begin at 5 p.m.

The superintendent said he will establish guidelines for proper debate to organize the forum and keep arguments under control. He said he will likely ask residents to submit questions beforehand.

Rutherford reminded the board and attending citizens that realignment is an option only if the state approves an expected $500 million bond issue to be distributed among school systems for capitol projects. The legislature is expected to vote on the bond issue in the spring.

"This is all hinging on the state bond issue and, if it's approved, if it's sizeable enough to fund anything," he said. "But we don't need to sit around till March, April or May to get something together."

Countywide realignment forum

The Lawrence County Board of Education plans to hold a countywide forum to discuss realignment next month. Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said he plans establish guidelines for proper debate and will likely ask residents to submit questions beforehand.

When: Feb. 5 at 6 p.m.

Where: Lawrence County Coliseum in front of the Lawrence County High School.

Who: All Lawrence County residents are encouraged to attend.

- Kristen Bishop

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