Community members speak their minds on school consolidation plan

Published 3:47 pm Thursday, June 30, 2022

On Thursday, a courtroom in Opelika was packed with Chambers County community members concerned about Chambers County School District’s school consolidation plan. They participated in a public hearing presided over by District Judge W. Keith Watkins. Watkins had a list of people who wanted to testify for or against the plan. He allowed each of them a soft three-minute time limit.

Under CCSD’s consolidation plan, LaFayette High School and Valley High School will merge together in a newly-built high school with a different name. Meanwhile, CCSD plans to turn LaFayette High School into a pre-K through eighth grade STEAM Academy. At the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year, plans are for Five Points Elementary and J. P. Powell Middle School to relocate to the Eastside Elementary School campus into a STEAM magnet program. Additionally, LaFayette Lanier Elementary will close and will merge into Fairfax Elementary.

CCSD announced the plan in May.

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According to CCSD Superintendent Casey Chambley, this consolidation is taking place for three reasons — to satisfy the requirements of a decades-old desegregation order from the federal government, to use buildings more efficiently and to give LaFayette High students the same course offerings that Valley High Students receive due to their enrollment numbers.

“I read all the comments that were submitted in writing,” Judge Watkins said.

Watkins said there are really four branches of government, not three — the legislative branch, the executive branch, the judiciary branch and citizens.

“I’m so glad to see a room full of people who care about public schools,” he said.

Watkins said hearing some public comments was an important part of deciding if CCSD’s consolidation plan was constitutional. At the end of the hearing, he said he would reasses the consolidation plan and decide what the next step would be.

He said that as a federal judge, his powers were limited and that community members would have to work out issues such as disagreements and time zone differences themselves.

“You don’t elect federal judges to run your community,” he said.

LaFayette Mayor Kenneth Vines was the first community member to speak. He expressed the opinion that all schools should remain open at least until Chambers County citizens were aware of what was going on in their communities. Vines said that J. P. Powell Middle School in LaFayette was in horrible condition and asked that LaFayette and Eastside house students from that school. He said the City of LaFayette planned to step up to make the consolidation plan work.

LaFayette High graduate Tammy Seroyer said she wanted consolidation but also wanted students to stay in their current schools until the new high school was built. She expressed the opinion that even though the CCSD held two meetings on the same day to inform community members of its consolidation plan, they weren’t really given options. She was referring to two community meetings held by CCSD on Feb. 7, 2022, — one in Valley and one in LaFayette — to discuss CCSD’s consolidation plans with the community. Participants were asked to take a survey afterwards to share their opinions on the matter.

Seroyer said community members needed to know such things as how building a new school would be funded or how students would be transportated to and from school under the plan. She expressed the opinion that it wouldn’t be fair to uproot students from the LaFayette area to have them go to schools elsewhere. She expressed the desire for more transparency from the school district and argued that the new high school should be built in a central location so students from LaFayette High School wouldn’t have to go to Valley. She also asked why the school district couldn’t make repairs to buildings students were already in.

Ruby Carr, a citizen of LaFayette for 57 years, expressed the opinion that the community meetings held in February were “contained” and “closed” and that attendees couldn’t ask questions. She argued that J. P. Powell Middle School, Five Points School and ​​LaFayette Lanier Elementary School are historical schools. Additionally, she argued it was a bad idea to move Five Points and J. P. Powell students to Eastside because students at Eastside have far worse test scores. She argued that very few people took the surveys offered after the February meetings and that Superintendent Chambley hadn’t been transparent.

Winford Lee Ashmore, who said he had run for superintendent in CCSD, said that the school system hadn’t been transparent enough and that there was nothing in its consolidation plan to equalize education in the school system for minority students.

Chambers County Commissioner Douglas Jones, who graduated from LaFayette High School in 1983, said that most of what he wanted to say had already been said. He said he wasn’t against consolidation but agreed with other community members that CCSD hadn’t provided enough communication or transparency. He argued that taking students from LaFayette to Valley or vice versa wouldn’t work.

“I don’t think that any kid in Chambers County should be put at a disadvantage,” he said.

Jones argued that the consolidation plan was too big and complicated to do all at one time and that it needed to be done in smaller steps.

“When we do changes, let’s tell people what we’re doing,” he said.

LaFayette City Councilmember Toney Thomas said that the consolidation should happen within the county seat, which is LaFayette. He argued that people choose to move to areas with good schools.

Local pastor Rev. Michael Stiggers said he wasn’t opposed to consolidation, but he said one could easily find three to four generations of people in the LaFayette area who had gone to school there.

“It’s devastating when you lose a school in the community,” he said.

He argued that the school system should consolidate in a central location rather than let people with “resources, money and power pull things their way.”

Shenice Smith, director of strategic initiatives for school-oriented nonprofit Unite, Inc., said her organization supports consolidation and believes the community could benefit from a STEAM program. She argued that the STEAM academy being established in the location of LaFayette High School could prepare students for the new high school.

Jeffrey Monroe, the acting mayor of Five Points, said that he and the city council have taken no official position on closing or maintaining Five Points School. However, he said that if it is closed, the city would like to repurpose the building for community services such as an after school program, a senior citizens program or a volunteer fire department or move government offices into the building.

Some community members were allowed to speak who hadn’t previously signed up to do so. One of them was Yolanda Ratchford, who said she was for consolidation, but not necessarily for CCSD’s current plan. She expressed concern that children would have to get up at “5 a.m.” to go to school somewhere far away. She suggested that CCSD just wanted to be out from the court order that required them to desegregate their school system.

Ratchford expressed disappointment that the school system was still trying to desegregate school after several decades of doing so.

“Shame on all of us for being here 50 years later,” she said.

Ratchford argued that schools in CCSD are still operating under “seperate but equal” vestiges of segregation. She said CCSD should keep all schools open until the new high school was built.

Watkins said he agreed that the desegregation case was too old.