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Why is Lawrence losing residents?
Officials place blame on
schools, lack of industry

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — Lawrence County officials blamed a struggling school system and a lack of industry for the county's steady population decrease since 2006.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau's newly released 2006 estimates, Lawrence County's population has decreased by about 500 residents, or about 1.4 percent, since 2000. The estimated population in 2006 was 34,312.

It doesn't sound like much, but compared to some neighboring counties, where the population has increased by as much as 3.8 percent, it could be an indication of an underlying problem.

Limestone County's population went from 65,676 in 2000 to 72,446, a 1 percent increase, and Morgan County's went from 111,064 to 115,237, up about 3.8 percent.

Alabama's total population growth from 2000 to 2006 was 3.4 percent.

The U.S. Census Bureau conducts a complete census every 10 years — during years that end in zero — and provides estimates for all other years based on births, deaths and migration.

Lawrence County Board of Education Chairman Bobby Diggs said he believes the school system may be repelling potential newcomers.

Lawrence County lacks the funding and resources to provide the same quality of education that many counties provide, he said.

7 high schools

One of the problems is trying to fund teachers for seven high schools. The financial burden prevents the schools from hiring additional teachers for elective or Advanced Placement courses. For example, many of the schools lack JROTC, band or driver education.

Diggs, who works at International Paper in Courtland, said he knew of a new manager at the company who originally wanted to move his family to the western part of the county but decided otherwise after looking at the schools.

"He said Lawrence County High School wasn't up to his standards and that Hatton was all white, and he didn't want that either, so he changed his mind," said Diggs.

"He eventually ended up moving to Killen so his kids could go to Brooks High School. It's also a predominantly white school, but the academics are much higher."

Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vicki Morese agreed that education plays a huge role in a family's decision to relocate.

"People perceive that our education is below average here, and as long as that perception persists, we're going to have a challenge recruiting families with children," she said.

"As great as Lawrence County is a place to live, the one thing I would change and have the county be known for is a quality education system."

The school board has tried to overcome the financial deficit by participating in energy-savings programs and other cost-reducing measures but has been unable to solve the problem entirely, said Superintendent Dexter Rutherford.

School board members approved a resolution Dec. 11 to pursue a realignment plan that would reduce the number of high schools, freeing teachers for elective courses. The consolidation would require the construction of a new school to hold more students.

The plan was delayed, if not completely abandoned, when the state announced that a 2007 bond issue for capital projects would not be as much as board members had hoped.

$6 million from state

Rutherford said he now believes the bond issue will give Lawrence County about $6 million.

"Quite frankly, that just won't scratch the surface of what we need in order to consolidate," he said. "It's going to boil down to needing additional revenue, and people aren't open to that. It's one thing to talk about consolidation, but it's another thing to talk about it along with a tax increase."

He said the school system is doing an "exceptional job" with the resources it has. He touted the county's five distance-learning labs and low dropout rate.

"I think we're an easy scapegoat sometimes. Some things just can't be fixed without a major revamping of our school system, and to do that, we have to have significant new money that can only come from new industry," he said.

"Now, industry folks will say that without a better school system, we won't have new industry, but it works both ways."

District 2 Commissioner John Terry agreed that the county needs more industry and blamed the decreasing population on the lack of new businesses.

"I think it's a lack of jobs. People have to move out of the county and find a job somewhere," he said. "If we could get some of these industries here, we'd be better off, but you have to have money to get them in, and we just don't have it."

The Lawrence County Industrial Development Board is pursuing industries and is in the process of adding infrastructure and utilities to one of its industrial parks, said Director Evon Zills.

Mallard Fox West

The county owns 500 acres at the Lawrence County Industrial Air Park in Courtland and 200 acres at the Mallard Fox West Industrial Park on Alabama 20 next to Morgan County.

The city of Courtland owns an additional 400 acres at the air park. Mayor Ted Letson said he is optimistic that the air park, home to nine businesses so far, will attract more industry to the area.

"We've got more industries looking right now because it's a central location for them, and we've done a lot of work on the airport," he said. "I think we've got a good opportunity to get something done."

Zills said the only thing keeping companies from moving to Mallard Fox West is the lack of infrastructure, an addition to the property that will cost the county thousands of dollars.

"There's no industry there now. If you don't have a site with infrastructure, you're behind the curve," she said.

The property is bisected by Norfolk Southern Rail, is adjacent to Alabama 20 and is within three miles of three public ports, she said.

"That generates a lot of interest," she said.

Lawrence County Commission Chairman Mose Jones said the IDB shouldn't have purchased the land at Mallard Fox West and should have, instead, focused on the air park.

"The big issue is that if you're going to get industry, you need to be by a river, and Lawrence County hasn't done that," he said. "I think it was a big mistake to buy land on the south side when most of the plants come in on the north side. If you look at Decatur and Morgan County, all the industry is on the north side."

Jones said the county would be better able to handle industrial recruitment than the Industrial Development Board.

"I think the problem is that everything needs to be turned back over to the County Commission, and the industrial recruiter needs to be under the umbrella of the County Commission," he said.

"That way we'd have direct involvement."

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