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Consolidation
may be dead

Superintendent says money won't be available to finance former merger plans

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — After months of debate that has divided Lawrence County into those for school consolidation and those against, the superintendent said Monday that the plan may no longer be an option.

Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said state officials told him Monday morning that an expected state bond issue won't be enough to cover the cost of a new high school. A new school is a requirement for any of the three consolidation plans the Board of Education is considering.

Gov. Bob Riley told school officials in December that the state had nearly $1 billion set aside for school construction, said Rutherford. The superintendent said he had hoped Lawrence County would receive enough of that bond issue to facilitate a consolidation plan.

He began a campaign urging board members and the community to consider consolidation plans should the bond issue be approved.

However, Sen. Hinton Mitchem, D-Albertville, said last week that his capital-investment plan calls for $750 million to be divided among K-12 schools and higher education. If the state Legislature approves, K-12 will receive 75 percent of the funding, while colleges and universities will receive 25 percent.

Unlike past state bond issues for capital projects, this one will be limited to a one-time allocation, said Rutherford.

"This discussion of realignment of Lawrence County Schools has been prefaced with the understanding that any proposal was contingent upon a capitol bond issue with leverage capabilities," he said.

Rutherford said the state approved a bond issue several years ago that could be distributed over 20 years. The school system had the option of taking $1 million each year or taking $6 million up front. At that time, school officials chose to accept a larger lump sum.

This time, that's the only option.

"We'll get more money up front, but it will be a one-time thing," he said. "Quite frankly, we're not going to get enough money from this bond issue to build a school."

State officials told Rutherford the school system would likely receive "in the neighborhood of $6 million," he said. The Board of Education has not discussed options for spending those funds outside of consolidation plans.

"Our existing facilities that are repairable have been repaired. Our buildings that we have now need to be replaced," said Rutherford. "Six million dollars will help, but with the cost of buildings these days, we'll have to look at creative ways to utilize those funds."

Rutherford said the lack of funding hasn't killed consolidation entirely, but he hasn't discussed other options with the school board.

"There really is no plan B," he said. "The hard, cold reality of things is that, as much as I wanted this to pan out, it just hasn't. We pray for guidance, but I don't claim to always know what the best decision is."

Rutherford has repeatedly said that consolidation is vital to ensuring Lawrence County students receive the kind of high-school education required to do well in college.

The school system is 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 the number of students. 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.

However, some Lawrence County residents will likely be relieved to know that the consolidation outlook is bleak.

Lawrence County communities are centered around their high schools, and many residents have said the communities will lose their identities if students are forced to go to another school.

During its January meeting, the school board planned a countywide forum to discuss consolidation plans Feb. 5 at the A.W. Todd Coliseum in Moulton.

Rutherford said the board will still hold the meeting, but with a slightly different approach.

"We'll be able to discuss issues of general concern like 'How would consolidation benefit us?' and 'Where would we gain by closing schools?' But issues like transportation and things like that — those questions are moot at this point," he said.

Countywide consolidation forum

The Lawrence County Board of Education will host a countywide forum to discuss consolidation Feb. 5 at the A.W. Todd Coliseum in Moulton at 6 p.m. The forum will follow the regularly scheduled board meeting at 5.

- Kristen Bishop

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