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Lawrence looks beyond state funds for consolidation

By Kristen Bishop · 340-2443

MOULTON — News that an expected state bond issue for school capital projects will likely not involve a leveraging component has limited Lawrence County consolidation options.

But Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said he and the Board of Education are not abandoning their pursuit of a realignment plan.

The school board approved a motion Dec. 11 to “pursue a capital project plan for the Lawrence County school system that includes the realignment of grades nine through 12.”

During the board’s January meeting, board members narrowed their realignment options to three: a one-school plan, a two-school plan and a three-school plan.

Each plan called for construction of a facility with a price tag too high for a cash-strapped school system like Lawrence County. Rutherford said he hoped the state bond issue, up for legislative approval this spring, would foot the bill.

Riley’s propositions

The bond issue is part of Gov. Bob Riley’s School Construction Program. Riley proposed a $500 million school safety and improvement plan in 2006 that was blocked by the Legislature.

According to a statement from the governor Jan. 25, he is proposing a similar appropriations bill for schools this year to be divided among K-12 schools, two-year colleges and four-year universities.

His proposal currently calls for a $500 million allocation based on cost estimates last fall, but Riley said that number could grow after his administration reviews recent budget numbers.

State officials told Rutherford on Monday that this bond issue will probably not include a leverage component, said Ruth-erford.

The leverage component would let the school system receive a larger amount of money distributed over a longer period of time.

Rutherford said the 2007 bond issue, if approved, will likely be a one-time allocation.

“There’s obviously a lot of unknown, but at this time, people in the state department are telling me that there won’t be a leverage component,” he said. “Without that, the amount we’ll probably receive isn’t enough to build a new school.”

Rutherford said state officials told him the Lawrence County school system would likely receive $6 million, not even close to the amount it would take to build a school.

Newly constructed Gadsden City High School cost the Gadsden City school system $40 million.

Still several options

Though the financial setback has put a damper on former consolidation plans, Rutherford said the issue isn’t dead.

“Like I’ve said before, there is no plan B, but there are several options,” he said. “We could take that $6 million and put it in a holding situation to see what develops. There are also several piecemeal options that have been kicked around for years.”

The “piecemeal” options would include closing schools and having those students attend a different, pre-existing facility.

Any plan involving students attending a rival school would likely be met with stiff resistance from some residents who feel that their high schools are what give the communities their identities.

“What we were trying to avoid with previous proposals is singling out communities,” said Rutherford.

“Am I saying we’ll start singling them out now? Absolutely not. But the previous proposals, in essence, were affecting communities equally.”

Rutherford and the school board have not met since the superintendent announced Monday that the state bond issue would likely not be enough for a large construction project.

“We — the board and I — will be considering our options,” said Rutherford. “This does not change the board’s motion to pursue a realignment plan.”

The board will meet Monday at 5 p.m. for its regularly scheduled board meeting, followed by a countywide forum to discuss consolidation at 6 at A.W. Todd Coliseum.

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