Valdosta citizens have until Nov. 8 to vote on the Lowndes County issue of consolidating or “unifying” the Valdosta City and Lowndes County Boards of Education.
County citizens have spoken their opinions in forums, such as the one held by Valdosta City Schools at J.L. Lomax Elementary School Tuesday at 7 p.m., and placed signs outside their businesses and homes, saying to either vote yes or vote no on the issue.
Friends of Valdosta City Schools’ anti-school consolidation protest on Saturday at 9 a.m., drew over 200 people to the parking lot in front of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce.
After a pep speech by retired Valdosta City School systems superintendent Sam Allen, the protesters marched in the streets to the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Park, chanting sayings such as “No at the polls” and “No school consolidation.”
Speakers varied from Allen and current Valdosta City School systems superintendent Dr. Bill Cason to Mayor Sonny Vickers, parents of past and current Valdosta High School students, NAACP presidents senior, sociology major DeAndre Jones of VSU’s chapter and Leigh Touchton of Valdosta’s chapter, local reverends Floyd Rose and Willie Harris, VHS senior Rozell Orr Jr., and Valdosta City School employees David Waller and Brian Law.
The idea of combining the two school systems is nothing new for the county, but the debate and tensions over the issue have risen as the election approaches.
Both the Lowndes County and Valdosta City Boards of Educations strongly oppose the movement.
CUEE, Community Unification for Educational Excellence, Inc., is a primary campaigner for the school consolidation movement. The organization thinks Lowndes County would benefit if Valdosta City School systems gave up its charter to the county, according to its Vote Yes 4 Our Children website.
The Chamber of Commerce also supports the school consolidation. The chamber’s Chairman of the Board of Directors Tom Gooding says consolidation would better the local education, ultimately creating a better workforce, according to WALB Lowndes County News.
Orr feels that he received and is receiving a wonderful education at VHS.
When he started at VHS, he was unsure of attending due to things he had heard about the school. The school’s students and teachers surprised him by welcoming and accepting him. He said that the teachers work closely with the students, calling VHS a “loving environment.”
Orr has received offers from several colleges such as Penn State University and University of Michigan and accredits these opportunities to his VHS education. Orr plans to major in chemical engineering and minor in foreign languages and international affairs at Georgia Tech.
Allen predicts that teachers’ jobs will be cut and class sizes will grow if the consolidation goes through.
“My main problem with consolidating the school systems at this time is that this is the worse economic time that you could ever think about putting people out of jobs and if you consolidate somebody’s gonna lose their jobs,” he said. “The number of teachers we need now, we won’t need that same number of teachers because all of a sudden class sizes will increase.”
Georgia law, OCGA Section 20-2-942, protects teachers’ jobs when consolidation occurs.
“Professional certificated personnel employed by a county or independent local school system that becomes consolidated with or merged into another county or independent local school system… shall retain their employment… in the newly created, or surviving, school system… certificated personnel shall retain and carry over all the rights already accrued and earned in the professional certificated personnel’s prior school system.”
Consolidation will improve and create ties to the community through working with VSU, the Boys and Girls Club and other facilities, CUEE said.
Through the Dewar College of Education, VSU students do their field studies and student teaching with the county and city schools.
“This requires a collaboration with the schools, and we have a long standing relationship with Lowndes County and Valdosta City Schools,” Dr. Karla Hull, College of Education interim dean, said.
VECA, or Valdosta Early College Academy, allows disadvantaged, low income, first generation high school or college students to get a high school diploma and up to 60 semester hours by their high school senior year. The VECA students use VSU resources.
The Valdosta Literacy Center, located in College of Education room 1001, currently helps kindergarteners through fifth graders with their reading skills and is developing programs for middle and high schoolers.
“Regardless of the outcome of the vote, we will continue to work closely with the schools and systems in our geographical service area,” Hull said. “Our collaboration will continue with both Lowndes County and Valdosta City school systems if they remain as separate systems or with the unified system if that is the outcome of the vote. As always we stand ready to be a resource to the schools and systems in our area.”
Citizens have noticed the racial difference between the school systems.
“Lowndes County School system is majority white and the Valdosta School System is majority black,” Allen said. “What they are trying to say is we want to live Dr. (Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s) dream and integrate the school systems but we want all the children to stay exactly where they are.”
Jerome Tucker, who graduated Westside High School when Valdosta desegregated its schools, feels CUEE’s mission has created the opposite effect of what it intended.
“I think this effort has further divided our community, because there are such strong feelings on both sides…and its gotten away and spread beyond the school systems into the neighborhoods and its becoming more racially divided and, so thus again, getting away from the kids,” he said.
Richard Saeger, a retired professor and school consolidation supporter, spoke to WALB about this factor of the consolidation issue at the forum Tuesday.
“I believe it’s time to finally desegregate the schools in Valdosta and Lowndes County, and I think this is the one opportunity we have to do it,” Saeger said.
Tina Nunn, a Valdosta City system school teacher that attended the protest, has worked within the system for 15 years and has a daughter attending one of the Valdosta schools. She feels strongly about her job and about not wanting to consolidate the schools.
“It is offensive that these CUEE members want to come in and take over education,” she said. “They are not in the classrooms, and they are not in the schools and they do not understand where we have come and what all we have done. Just to wake up the next day and there be no Valdosta city schools puts a knot in your stomach.”
She, like Julie Greenhall, a parent to a VHS student who spoke at the MLK Park, cannot vote because she lives in the county. Only city residents can vote.
Jones has been through the consolidation process before when Americus High School and Sumter High School combined to make the Americus-Sumter County High schools, thus seeing the ups and downs the process takes on a community. Valdosta NAACP contacted him about the protest, and he wanted to participate because he wanted to march with the students.
He feels that VSU will be affected by the vote, and students should vote.
“I think anytime you have the opportunity to vote on an issue, and you’re informed, I think you definitely should vote,” he said. “I think the students of VSU should be concerned even if (students) are not from here, they might not be from here or be here for long, but you know voting is a citizen’s responsibility, and I think anytime you have a chance to make your voice to be heard, you should vote.”
CUEE committee member Tom Kurrie said, if the consolidation goes through, nothing at first will happen but he expects the process to be complete by 2013.
“The planning committee will help with the transition if asked, the county will prepare to take in the city, new districts will have to be drawn county wide and approved by the Department of Justice, and a new school board will have to be elected representing those districts, which will include both city and county,” he said to the Valdosta Daily Times. “It takes usually about 18 months, so hopefully everything would be in place by mid-2013.”
Updated at 11:40 a.m. on Nov. 14