Chambley updates consolidation plans at Lion Club

Published 10:45 am Thursday, September 14, 2023

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VALLEY — Chambers County Superintendent of Schools Casey Chambley was the guest speaker at the Monday evening meeting of the Valley Lions Club. He talked about what’s been going on with the school consolidation issue and what it will mean for the school district.

The big difference, according to Chambley, will be the price tag. If the school is built in Valley the cost will be in the neighborhood of $80 million; if the LaFayette site had been chosen, the cost would be in the $120 million range.

The higher cost for the LaFayette site is due to building a 6A football stadium and infrastructure improvements that won’t be needed at the Valley site.

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“It all comes down to dollars and cents and building what we can afford,” Chambley said.

What the system can afford to borrow is another factor. The total of $80 million is a much better figure that $120 million.

“The interest rates on municipal bonds aren’t as high as the basic rates,” he said. “That should help us.”

The 80-acre site in the Valley Industrial Park is right next door to Ram Stadium, which was built in 2001 at a cost of $3 million. Given inflation and the rise in construction costs, building a stadium like that would run in the $18 million range today.

“To build a new stadium like the one in Valley will cost you that much,” he said. “The size of the water lines at the site and their flow is very important, too.”

The Valley site also has industrial-scale water and sewer lines nearby along with high-pressure gas lines. Some major improvements would have to go in at the LaFayette site to accommodate the needs of a new high school.

An architectural firm has been hired to design the new school. Chambley said he expects the public to be pleased when the initial renderings of the campus are released in the near future, probably in October.

Chambley said there is a clear need for a new high school in Chambers County. Both Valley High and LaFayette High have undergone some significant improvements in the last 20 years or so but both are on ancient campuses. VHS has been in its present location since 1939 and LaFayette High has been in its present location since 1927.

Ideally, said Chambley, a new consolidated school should be built near the geographical center of the county. That’s LaFayette, but it’s not the population center. That’s Valley.

“I didn’t put the Chattahoochee River where it is, I-85 where it is or the county’s population where it is,” Chambley said. “We have to consider this in a new school site.”

“For me, the issue didn’t come down to Valley or LaFayette,” Chambley said. “It came down to basic economics. The economics favor the Valley site.”

The big problem with school construction in Chambers County has been the Lee v. Macon court case from 1970. It holds that Chambers, along with a number of other east-central Alabama school districts, has had dual school systems. The goal is to overcome this with a unitary system, one that does not discriminate based on race.

Chambley said there’s just not enough tax revenue being produced in Chambers County to support building two new high schools. There is enough to support a consolidated school to serve a 6A enrollment. The choice comes down to spending $80 million in Valley or $120 million in LaFayette.

In June, the judge had a ruling that seemed to favor Valley, but it won’t be final until he releases an opinion. This is expected to be quite lengthy. It will lay out all the facts as Judge Keith Watkins sees them and the rationale for his decision.

“Judge Watkins is a good judge,” Chambley said. “He looks at everything and is very thorough in what he does.”

Chambley said students in the rural county will benefit by attending a consolidated high school.

“LaFayette High is a small high school without an expansive curriculum,” he said. “The new high school will have more options for them.”

Chambley said that consolidation means making decisions that are right for today’s students and for future generations. “Our facilities must be based on what’s needed today and not for what was needed 30 years ago,” he said. “We need to compete with other systems socially, academically and athletically. We are all about the future in the design phase that’s going on.”

A new high school in Valley would be going up on an 80-acre site between Ram Stadium and the GFA trucking terminal on Fairfax Bypass. The main entrance will be across from the present junction of Huguley Road and the bypass. By the time the school opens, what’s now W.F. Burns Middle School will have relocated into the present Valley High building. This should help alleviate traffic congestion in the area.  School bus travel to the site will turn onto Valley Industrial Boulevard and proceed along the Combs Road extension to the new school site and take loads of students to the front of the new school.

“There will be several different ways to get there,” Chambley said.

Chambley thinks everyone will be excited about the new high school once they see the plans for it. Those plans could be approved by the board of education next spring. Bids then will be left with an award to be made around late May.

“You will absolutely see concrete and steel going into the ground next summer,” he said.

“Supply chain and weather issues can slow us down, but I think it will take between 18 and 24 months to build it. It should be open by the start of the 2026-27 school year.”

Chambley said he was pleased with the reading test scores that have been coming in from Chambers County schools. He credited the Alabama Reading Initiative (ARI) and the work of classroom teachers for bringing this about. The scores are especially good at Bob Harding-Shawmut Elementary and vast improvement has been seen at Eastside Elementary in LaFayette.

“Everyone in the county benefits when our students are doing well,” Chambley said. “We all benefit when our schools are producing graduates that can handle high-paying jobs.”