Superintendent says consolidation is moving forward

Published 9:00 am Friday, January 19, 2024

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WEST POINT — Chambers County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Casey Chambley talked about what comes next with school consolidation at Thursday’s noon hour meeting of the West Point Rotary Club. The fact that school consolidation will be taking place and that a new countrywide high school will be built in Valley are settled issues.

That was made clear last June in a decision by Federal Judge Keith Watkins and his subsequent opinion in September. An opportunity to appeal this expired on November 28th with no involved party opting to do that.

“It has been signed, sealed and delivered, and we are moving forward,” he said. “In early February we will be having a community meeting to announce the name of the new school, the mascot and the school colors. We will also have architectural renderings of the new school’s design.”

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Much community input has gone into the name of the new school and the nickname of its sports teams.

A 70-acre site behind Ram Stadium and the GFA trucking terminal has been donated to the Chambers County School District by the City of Valley. The city will be building turn lanes off Fairfax Bypass to the school site and a loop road for buses to be located behind the school.

The Alabama Department of Construction Management will be forwarded the building plan and should issue its approval in the coming weeks. Building the school on the chosen site should run in the range of $85 million to $90 million. Chambley is confident the school board can approve bond financing that can cover the cost with an annual indebtedness of a little more than $5 million, an amount that can be handled by the school system.

Chambley said some people had told him they wanted the new school to be built toward the center of the county, perhaps on Highway 50 between Valley and LaFayette.

The problem with this, said Chambley, would be that the school system would be obligated to build  new athletic facilities. A new 6A football stadium alone could cost upward to $20 million. A new gym, baseball stadium, track, tennis courts, etc. would run the total cost of the project to more than $150 million. Building at the site in Valley can cut that price tag almost in half. Ram Stadium is only around 20 years old and is easily in the 6A class of a high school stadium. There’s an existing track around the football field, tennis courts are nearby outside Valley Community Center, and Crestview Ballpark isn’t that far away. The new school will have to have a new gym. The design being looked at would have two of them inside the main building. One would be an auxiliary gym with the main gym being able to hold more than 1,500 people.

The school system should be able to handle the expense of needed improvements to what’s already there, such as a new scoreboard and a turf field at Ram Stadium.

“Dirt is being moved at the school site, and I am really happy about that,” Chambley said.

Chambley has had a lot on his plate since first being elected superintendent. In his first month on the job he was contacted by Judge Watkins and was asked what the school district was going to do about consolidating. This was something that had been coming to a head since the Lee v. Macon court case in 1970. A consent decree was issued in the early 1990s when the school board came up with a plan to build a new school on Highway 50. In 1994, county voters had the chance to do this by means of a tax referendum. It was put to a vote and was massively defeated. That put consolidation talk on hold for a long time.

Chambley said that back then it made more sense to build a new school at a midway point than it does now. The enrollment at Valley High wasn’t that much bigger than LaFayette High at the time. It’s more than three times larger now.

It would cost much more to transport students from Valley to a new school in LaFayette than it would to transport them from LaFayette to Valley.

If being in the geographical center meant everything, Walmart would have been built in LaFayette and not Valley, Chambley reasoned.

The school site is much closer to the population center in Valley than it would have been in LaFayette.

In that first month in office, Judge Watkins told Chambley that Chambers County needed to come up with a consolidation plan over the next year-and-a-half. “He told me it was a local issue for us to solve,” he said. “His only concern was that we were in compliance with the court decree.”

Chambley spent four days in federal court to discuss this. He and school board attorney Bob Meadows of Opelika were on one side and a battery of ten attorneys was on the other. Those attorneys represented the Legal Defense Fund, representing Chambers County clients, and the Justice Department, there to see that whatever actions that took place adhered to the U.S. Constitution.

It was a grueling experience for Chambley. “I was on the stand for 13 hours,” he said.

The goal with consolidation, he said, was to burden as few people as possible. “We had to go through a process to find what was most practical,” he said. “It led us to the site chosen.”

No matter what decision was made, some people would not be happy. “There is emotion and tradition tied up into it,” Chambley said. “People hate to part with their school identity, the school colors and mascot. Kids can handle change better that adults. There will be a learning curve involved in making this work. We’ve already gotten a little into it at career tech, where students from Valley and LaFayette have been taking classes together. I think everyone should be excited to have a new, modern school and to have more academic opportunities. In a few years, no one will understand why there was opposition to doing this.”

A member of the club asked Chambley if he felt it better to appoint a superintendent rather than elect one. “It’s hard for me to say it’s better to have one appointed since I got here by being elected,” he said to some good-natured laughter, “but I don’t think it should be an elected position. An appointed superintendent doesn’t have to make decisions that are politically expedient. A superintendent has to do what’s bet for kids, and they don’t vote.”

Another member of the club asked him about the entire county being on Central time. He said the school system would definitely be on Central time when the new school is built. “We won’t ask LaFayette kids to go to school an hour earlier than they are used to,” he said.