Chambers Co. gauges community interest in consolidating schools
Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, November 27, 2018
For two weeks in November, the Chambers County Board of Education collected feedback from county residents, educators and students regarding the concept of consolidating the two high schools into one larger school.
On Monday night and Tuesday morning, town hall meetings were held in Valley and LaFayette, respectively, to evaluate the more than 1,600 survey responses.
The survey, conducted by educational consulting firm Cooperative Strategies, which has worked with school districts around the southeast, began by asking the respondent if they supported the consolidation of schools. The results showed that the people of Chambers County are torn on the subject, with 40 percent saying no, 37 percent saying yes and 23 percent needing more information before deciding.
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The results also revealed most people would be in favor of some sort of capital campaign to fund a potential new high school, but were firmly against any form of a tax increase, whether through income, sales or property.
Chambers County Superintendent Dr. Kelli Hodge said the complete results of the survey will be made available on the Chamber County School Board website at www.chambersk12.org
The Bobby Crowder room of the Valley Community Center was standing room only by the time Monday night’s meeting got underway. A panel consisting of Greg Ellis and Tracy Richter of Cooperative Strategies, Hodge and Valerie Gray of the Development Authority presented to the audience before taking community input.
“The real important piece of this is community input,” Richter said of the process. “We are at the very beginning of a process here.”
Richter and Ellis went back and forth in presenting the information gathered from the survey. Topics such as renovation versus consolidation, funding for these projects and a potential location for a new school were discussed.
When the survey data was shared with the room, the panel opened the floor to discussion. Though 40 percent of responses were against the potential consolidation, those who spoke posed questions of how consolidation would work rather than critiques of the idea in general.
Specific questions on what time zone the school might be in, what a single school would mean for area sports and how consolidation would affect education quality dominated the conversation throughout the evening.
Taking turns responding to each query, Ellis, Richter and Hodge explained that the entire concept of consolidation was to improve facility conditions for every student in the county.
“We have never regained everything that we lost when West Point Pepperell left us,” Hodge said. “If we continue to divide up our resources between two high schools and a career technical center, we are not going to regain it.”
Gray asserted that newer facilities would also attract new businesses as people saw that the Chambers County School System was more accommodating for students.
Even without consolidation, they said, money would have to be spent on facilities to improve upon the level of education that could be offered.
“The Valley Campus as a whole … was built in the 1960s,” Ellis said. “About 65 percent of this campus is 55-plus years old. The bones, the structure is in relatively good condition … but imagine the amount of wear, the amount of tear that that many students every single day for over 50 years can do.”
When a parent posed a question regarding student input in this decision making, Valley High School Senior Kaley Jones assured the room that change was desired.
“Your kids, your students want this,” she said. “We feel like we deserve this. We feel like we aren’t getting the same opportunities as our friends that live 15 minutes away. It’s not because of our teachers, it’s not because of our parents, and it’s not because of our board. It’s because we have facilities that are over 60 years old.”
More questions following similar rhetoric were asked throughout the allotted time. When the town hall was over, Richter assured everyone in attendance that the survey results and the town hall meetings were stepping stones in the decision-making process and that a new, updated survey would be given out in coming months.
The next morning, Richter and Ellis presented a similar presentation with the same data, just a few minutes down the road in LaFayette at the Alfa Building. Although the meeting wasn’t as well attended as the night before, partly due to its 9 a.m. central time start, the residents were just as curious about what would happen with consolidation.
Hodge said that consolidation would bring certain academic advantages to students while freeing up teachers to pursue more in-depth classes inside a concentration.
For example, Hodge said instead of teaching six sections of a subject at each high school, consolidation would give educators the ability to teach new courses within that subject that would have been previously available.
Questions about cultural differences also arose Tuesday morning and whether or not the two student bodies could co-exist in the same high school.
Richter said that would be up to the students, but a new facility isn’t going to be the determining factor.
“Anybody who would suggest that a new facility would solve all problems — is shortsighted,” he said. “Will it increase success rates? If there is a bad principal and bad teachers, then no. It really has to be the attitude and the care that a community puts into it.”
Terry Mangram of LaFayette, who has one kid in school in Valley and another who will soon enter the school system, said worrying about kids getting along shouldn’t be the main issue.
“I don’t that we need to be so worried about if the kids will get along because I think any time you put people together, they are going to come together,” he said. “I can assure you if we consolidated, those kids will be fine.”
He said several of the kids already co-exist due to the proximity of the county. Hodge also boasted that many of the students are already cooperating in the Career Tech and JROTC program in the district.
Jatorio Carlisle of LaFayette and a substitute teacher in the district said he hopes the conversations the two firms outside the area and the district are having with the public aren’t just for show and an actual decision still needs to be made.
“I understand that we say we are in the planning phase … but usually, when you get to a phase like this, and it comes to the public, behind the scenes, a lot of the decisions have already been made,” he said.
Hodge could be seen visibly shaking her head as to say this isn’t true.
Ellis responded to Carlisle by saying there are no decisions, and he is dedicated to having a comprehensive discussion.
“You have to bring all of it together, and the community has to have these discussions. We don’t have preconceived notions about solutions. There are discussions, ideas and concepts, but any concrete plans, solutions or answers — those exist yet,” he said. “We can’t put those together until we get your feedback and build a framework for putting solutions together.”
LaFayette Police Chief George Rampey said the decision of consolidation may soon be taken out of the city’s hands based on its declining enrollment.
“When we look at the declining enrollment in LaFayette, and it’s based on a lot of people who say they love LaFayette, but those same people will pick up and move their kids away just to get in a better school system,” he said. “It’s a matter of choice now, but later it is not going to be a choice. If we keep going down in enrollment, then something is going to have to happen anyway.”
He said he loves LaFayette, but there always comes a time when that realization hits and changes need to be made.
Richter said the two meetings were productive and there was a lot of feedback to analyze and figure out how to move forward. However, the meetings ran smoothly.
“These meetings can get contentious, and this community hasn’t made it contentious, they have made it a conversation,” he said. “I think that is the important piece. When we are starting from the place where people are talking, and we are listening, it is a good start from the process.”
Richter said he isn’t sure when the community will hear from him again, but it will definitely happen.