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Clockwise: Sarah Lewis Nelson, a consolidation supporter, speaks at the Lawrence County Board of Education's public forum Monday evening. Lawrence County High School seniors Sunny Ashley and Angel Elliot exchange looks after speaker Kenny Gillespie responded to comments made by Chairman Bobby Diggs that racial prejudice was the reason many parents didn't favor consolidation. Former Superintendent DeWayne Key reinforces the need for diversity in the school curriculum, saying, 'Our failure to provide (equal educational) opportunity is unfair, unjust and immoral.' Nine speakers spoke against consolidation at the forum, and 15 spoke for it.
Daily photo by Jonathan Palmer
Clockwise: Sarah Lewis Nelson, a consolidation supporter, speaks at the Lawrence County Board of Education's public forum Monday evening. Lawrence County High School seniors Sunny Ashley and Angel Elliot exchange looks after speaker Kenny Gillespie responded to comments made by Chairman Bobby Diggs that racial prejudice was the reason many parents didn't favor consolidation. Former Superintendent DeWayne Key reinforces the need for diversity in the school curriculum, saying, "Our failure to provide (equal educational) opportunity is unfair, unjust and immoral." Nine speakers spoke against consolidation at the forum, and 15 spoke for it.

Talking consolidation
Residents divided at Lawrence
schools realignment forum

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — There appeared to be an even number of consolidation supporters and opponents at the Lawrence County Board of Education's forum Monday.

School consolidation has been a hot topic in the county since the board voted in December to pursue a realignment plan for its seven high schools.

The board has not chosen a particular plan, but previous plans have called for the closure of four or more high schools.

Proponents say consolidation would give students more educational opportunities by allowing schools to offer more elective and advanced placement courses.

Opponents urge the board to consider the benefits of smaller schools, such as lower drop-out rates, better teacher-student relationships and less violence. Some opponents say they fear a loss of community identity if the communities lose their high schools.

Chairman Bobby Diggs opened the forum by asking District 3 board member Beth Vinson to read the county's school goals and objectives from the Board of Education manual.

"We believe that the board is responsible to the people for providing the best possible education, within limits over which it has control, for all boys and girls entrusted to our care," she read.

"Therefore, it shall be the goal of the board to provide a comprehensive program that will enable each boy and girl in this district to pursue a course of study that meets his or her individual needs for achieving his or her academic, vocational, social, emotional and spiritual goals in life."

Diggs, who represents majority-black District 1, asked the audience to put community rivalries aside and consider what is best for Lawrence County students.

"I understand we are elected officials, but we have a charge, an obligation, to provide the best education for every kid in this county," he said. "... We cannot cater to a community or an individual. We have to cater to the county."

Diggs said he had received numerous letters, e-mails and phone calls from residents opposing consolidation. He found two recurring themes: racial division and athletics.

"I've had people say 'I don't want my child to go to school with another kid of a different race,' " he said. "That's sad. That's sickening."

Speake resident Kenny Gillespie, a consolidation opponent, later took the stage and told Diggs he was "offended" that Diggs thought it was a racial issue.

Diggs also said many opponents told him they feared their child wouldn't be able to play athletics if they were moved to a larger school.

"Consolidation can be the best thing when you think about what's in the best interest of our children — especially if you put education first," he said.

Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said the board decided to pursue a consolidation plan, not because of inadequate teachers or programs, but in order to offer more to Lawrence County students.

"From the onset, this has not been an indictment of our school system and the job that's been done by our teachers," he said. "... We have a lot of good things. Our drop-out rate is one of the lowest in the system."

He said that, in the past, he was opposed to consolidation.

"I was elected — not for one group — but for this entire county. Sometimes decisions have to be made that are not popular," he said.

Rutherford began his consolidation push about a year ago, when state legislators began discussing a possible bond issue for capital projects.

He had hoped the bond issue would be large enough to construct a new facility, a cost all the previous consolidation plans have required.

State officials told Rutherford in January that the county's portion of the bond issue likely would be about $6 million, not enough for a new school.

Since then, he has backed away from any particular consolidation plan and said he will be seeking advice from the community and discussing other options with the board.

Rutherford told about 150 audience members that consolidation was necessary because the school system is losing state funding for teachers because of declining enrollment.

He said the county currently is paying $250,000 for teachers at the county's smallest high school.

"There's nothing wrong with that, but we're doing it to barely get by," he said.

Consolidating schools would allow fewer teachers to give basic curriculum classes while others could teach electives. Rutherford has said that if schools consolidate, no teachers would be fired.

Former Superintendent DeWayne Key said he conducted a brief opportunity study last week that found a huge disparity in course offerings at different schools in the county.

"I found that the following courses are being taught at East Lawrence, but none of these, according to the schedules, are being offered at Mount Hope, R.A. Hubbard or Hazlewood," he said.

His 11-item list included marine biology, drama, advanced zoology and calculus.

"And that's comparing ourselves to ourselves," he said. "Even at East Lawrence, there is no foreign language except Spanish, no Spanish III, no physics, no chemistry II, and the list of missed opportunities goes on."

The school board pre-selected the 24 speakers and gave each a three-minute time limit. Anne Isbell, an employee at the Alabama Better Business Bureau, moderated the forum.

Nine speakers opposed consolidation, and 15 speakers supported it.

The first speaker, Tyler Berryman, said education encompasses more than curriculum. He emphasized student-teacher relationships and called on statistics from the Rural Schools and Community Trust of Alabama.

The advocacy group claims researchers have found that small schools have better academic results and student behavior, are more cost-effective and strengthen local economies.

Greg Gentry, vice-president of The Citizens Bank in Moulton, and James Lewis of Lewis Innovative Tech Inc. disagreed that smaller schools are an asset to area economies.

Gentry said Boeing chose to locate right across the Morgan County line.

"If you drive out to Morgan County (on Alabama 24), there's pasture land going into it, but when you get across, there's Boeing," he said. "... There's a reason for that. We're not doing something right in our county."

Lewis said his company employs 13 graduates of Lawrence County schools but has problems recruiting engineers and other technical workers to Moulton.

"Since skilled technicians can live anywhere they want, it's difficult to get them to come to Lawrence County," he said. "They go where the best educational opportunities are. ... I would love to see the day when an engineer moves here because of our schools."

Laurie Montgomery, an English teacher at Lawrence County High School, said she, her husband and her son all graduated from LCHS and then earned college degrees.

"We know that our best and brightest can succeed," she said. "I just don't buy that you can't graduate from Lawrence County and be a tremendous success."

She agreed with Berryman that smaller schools can provide a greater student-teacher relationship that some students need to succeed.

"The highest percentage will rise to the top, but there are a lot of students that need that student-teacher closeness that we have," she said.

According to Montgomery, a poll of LCHS students and faculty found that 55 percent of employs and 90 percent of students opposed a two-school consolidation plan previously considered by the school board.

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