In two public forums and an online survey, the Chambers County School District proposed a merger of LaFayette and Valley high schools and possibly Lanett High School.

“My board, directors, principals and I have known for a long time that, what we are able to do for our kids, we see that we’re not doing enough to prepare them for the next level,” said Chambers County School District Superintendent Kelli Hodge. “We divide up our money between two high schools and a career technical center, and the thought has been if we can pull all that money together, pull all those resources into one campus, we would decrease all the transportation.”

Transportation cost

One issue inspiring the high school consolidation proposal, the cost of bus traffic from Chambers County schools to the career technical institution consumes a significant amount of school revenue, and the merger would cut down on the excessive travel.

“Every period of every day, there is constant bus traffic coming up here,” Hodge said. “We are busing kids from Valley, LaFayette, W.F. Burns, J.P. Powell, Five Points, Lanett City and Chambers Academy, so we run over 600 kids a day through this career technical center. By transporting them constantly, we are losing instructional time, and we are spending a lot of money on transportation.”

With fewer bus rides, high-school students would be able to utilize their studies to the fullest without wasting opportunities for longer classes and study times.

“You obviously want a location that has the least impact on student transportation time because the transportation time is what takes away from class time,” said David Bell, Chambers County Board of Education public relations director. “If a student is spending too much time getting to and from a campus, then you are taking away time that student actually needs to be spending in the classroom.”

Classes and programs

The expense of secondary programs is another issue consolidation could solve by having a central location for all of these special programs currently overextended among large and small classes within each high school.

“At the high-school level, you’ve got to have those teachers that not only teach those core subjects, but you got to have those electives,” Hodge added. “You’ve got to have those advanced and general courses, and then, we have to provide access to career tech. You’ve got to have sports and extra curriculum.”

Chambers County teachers are spread thin with the ongoing high school arrangement, but a single high school would allow a teacher to be completely used for another educational need.

“We have some advanced classes where there are only nine kids sitting in, and then, at another place we may have 22,” Hodge added. “Well, if you pull those together, you’re actually allowing one of those teachers to be able to teach something else. We could provide more choices for our kids.”

Hodge and Bell emphasized the importance of providing a wide selection of courses and curriculum for the specialized expectations and standards of modern occupations, military jobs and college studies.

“Back when I was in school, you were preparing to do one of two things: you go work at the mill company, or you go to college to do something else,” Bell said. “There was no other alternative, and the whole scope of jobs and the technology involved in today’s workforce has changed so drastically. We have to change with it to make sure our children have the best opportunities we can possibly give them.”

Updates in technology and safety standards would be additional benefits from a centralized high school compared to the older campuses with separated-building layouts forcing students into unsafe practices like crossing a busy street.

Possible challenges

“Chambers County operates in dual time zones, so the Valley area operates in the Eastern time zone because of the influence of West Point Pepperell Mills,” Hodge said. “The rest of the county operates on the Central time zone, and people are worried how we are going to address that.”

As dual time zones are considered, the funding of the construction has also been a challenging obstacle for the proposal. But according to Hodge, the board is researching opportunities to acquire funding.

“A high school can cost anywhere from $25 to $100 million depending on what you put in there, so we are researching different funding opportunities,” Hodge said. “Some of the other things people are worried about is transportation. We are geocoding by taking the address of our students and plotting it on a map, and then, the software kind of says, ‘Here’s the centralized location, and here’s the property that’s most conducive.’”

Enter Lanett?

Lanett City Schools Board of Education and Superintendent Philip Johnson are accepting feedback on the possibility of including Lanett High School in the consolidation of LaFayette and Valley, and transportation has been a difficult challenge for Lanett to contemplate as well.

“That would be a con because our small city and population has a small bus fleet, and we are able to transport rather quickly,” Johnson said. “We are able to offer programs and have complete control over the programs we serve, being a centralized small city system. If I want to expand STEM, we can do that, and if I want to expand fine arts, we can do that.”

After issuing a survey for the citizens of Lanett, the city was split by 50 percent in favor and against consolidating with the other Chambers County high schools, so Johnson and the board are primarily concerned about the public’s interpretation of their future for the district.

“I think a lot of the issues Chambers County Schools are looking to improve are their facilities,” Johnson said. “Because we are smaller, we’ve been able to update our facilities along the way, so facilities are not an issue for us. I think a lot of the programs they are talking about, like STEM and fine arts, we have that already. It would simply be a question for our population, ‘Do you want to be larger? Do you see value in that, or do you see value in being smaller?’”

'Not an easy decision'

Johnson and the board are satisfied with maintaining their small facilities as opposed to increasing their number of students in the merger, but as Hodge, Bell and Johnson have continually expressed, the opinion of their citizens is appreciated and determines the next step after the proposal.

“It’s not an easy decision because there are certain traditions and things that have been here 120 years that people are fond of,” Johnson said. “That’s the same for the other schools as well. We’ve got to decide as a county what direction do we go. I’ve been so impressed. It’s been handled very respectfully on our end in Lanett. Our citizens are having conversations about it, and you can’t ask for more than that as a superintendent.”

Possibly, in the first quarter of the new year between late January and early February, the Chambers County School District will hold more public forums to answer questions from the previous meetings, and more surveys will be conducted to accurately convey the current feelings, thoughts and opinions of Chambers County citizens.

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