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Board won't
revisit merger

Superintendent urges
repairs for Lawrence schools

By Kristen Bishop
kbishop@decaturdaily.com 340-2443

MOULTON — There's often a fine line between realism and pessimism, and Lawrence County Board of Education members disagree on which side they're on regarding consolidation of seven high schools.

The hot-button issue had lain dormant since January, when the board discovered a state bond issue for capital projects wouldn't be enough to fund a consolidation plan, but it was revived Monday when Chairman Bobby Diggs called for a plan despite the financial setback.

He said the state has money set aside for schools wanting to consolidate but won't consider doling out the funds until the board has officially adopted a plan.

"Our schools are suffering; our children are suffering," he said. "If we continue to cut (teachers) like we did this year, we're not going to make it. ... If you don't initiate a plan, we're nowhere."

Diggs later referred to the 11/2 teacher units cut from R.A. Hubbard School in his district this year. Providing teachers at seven high schools puts a strain on the county's already-low budget. With declining enrollment and no tax increases in the near future, the school board has had to decrease the number of faculty members teaching non-required courses.

The three plans the board previously considered all called for the construction of a new school at an estimated cost of $25 million to $30 million. Superintendent Dexter Rutherford said the only way the system could come up with that kind of money is with a large bond issue or a tax hike, two unlikely events.

The superintendent pushed for consolidation when he thought the state bond issue would be larger and have a leveraging component. He said state officials then estimated Lawrence County would actually only receive a one-time allocation of about $4.2 million, "a far cry from what we'd need."

"There comes a time when we have to be realistic and say 'there's no horizon out there,' " said Rutherford. "There's no direction for me to move you toward."

Diggs said he felt "optimistic" the money would come if the board developed a plan, but other board members disagreed.

"We've had color-coded charts, data. We've brought experts in and held a forum, but if we don't have the funds, what good is it going to do for us?" said board member Beth Vinson. "I don't think any of us closed the door on this. The door just got closed."

Rutherford said one option is a "piecemeal plan" that would consolidate some of the smaller schools without constructing a new facility. For example, Hazlewood elementary students could move to R.A. Hubbard School, and R.A. Hubbard high school students could move to Hazlewood School.

The idea has been mentioned in the past but fizzled when board members complained that the only way to please residents countywide is to act in a way that affects all students equally.

Rutherford said the school board has reached a standstill regarding consolidation and should start considering how the system should spend the expected $4.2 million from the state.

Diggs said that without a unified stance from its members, the board has nothing to show the public and government agencies in order to gain support and help generate the necessary funding.

But Rutherford said that without the promise of funding to make the proposal more concrete, board members would likely continue to grasp at mere hypotheticals that benefit their districts' schools the most, never agreeing on one plan.

He turned the board's attention to existing facilities that either need to be replaced or need major repairs.

Lawrence County schools transportation Director Harold Pirtle said the board's top priorities should be replacing a building at Moulton Middle School, where the floor has deteriorated beyond repair, and repairing the floor in a building at Speake School.

"It's got to be done, and it's got to be done as soon as possible," he said.

Architects presented designs for a new building at Moulton Middle School earlier this year. The board hasn't chosen an architect yet, but Pirtle said the building would hold 24 classrooms, offices, science center and a library media center.

Rutherford said the cost of the building would likely be most of the bond issue.

The school board did not decide how to spend the bond issue Monday, but it seemed the consolidation issue may have been put to rest — or at least down for a nap.

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