May 11, 2013 10:31:31 PM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
After a backlash of parental opposition, the county school board Friday reversed last month's district-wide decision mandating school uniforms.
The new motion, amended several times before passing 3-1, exempts Caledonia's three schools, along with West Lowndes High School, from having uniforms and allows administrators at the three New Hope campuses to either enforce or opt out of the requirement.
Previously, only students at West Lowndes elementary and middle schools wore uniforms -- a decision made by school administrators long before April's vote.
A survey issued by the district last year indicated Caledonia parents were strongly opposed to the idea, with 30 percent of parents district-wide expressing disapproval. Overall, 20 percent of parents were in favor of the move and 50 percent did not respond.
Discussion Friday opened with board member Jane Kilgore making a motion to allow Caledonia schools to opt out of the mandatory uniform policy, making it a requirement only for West Lowndes and New Hope campuses.
"From what I'm hearing, the majority of the people in Caledonia do not want uniforms and I would like y'all to respect our wishes," Kilgore said.
The motion was seconded by board member Brian Clark, who referenced the strong opposition Caledonia parents expressed in the surveys.
But if Caledonia was allowed to opt out, West Lowndes High School should be as well, board member Jacqueline Gray said.
"West Lowndes elementary and middle schools have been doing this for years," Gray said. "The high school does not want it, but we would go (along) with the district, because we all want to do the same thing. I still feel the same way, but we said if anyone pulls out, then so would we."
Gray made a motion to amend Kilgore's motion, allowing West Lowndes High School, along with Caledonia's three campuses, to opt out of the uniform policy. West Lowndes Elementary School and West Lowndes Middle School would still be required to wear uniforms.
Board member Wes Barrett said he was in support of the uniform policy and voiced his frustrations with the last-minute amendment to the policy, saying the district has been talking for the past 15 years about implementing mandatory uniforms.
"At what year do we decide, 'Hey, we're going to enforce these rules?'" he asked. "Are we going to have kids show up at 7:30 (a.m.) so they can have a uniform check and (we can) make sure they adhere to the dress code and have institutional time begin at 8 (a.m.)? At some point in time, we've got to be in the business of educating kids."
Barrett said he had called other districts in the state and spoken with administrators about the pros and cons of uniforms.
"I actually called three schools -- community schools in the state who had switched to uniforms -- looking for a reason not to switch, and I could not find one reason," he said. "They all said it was controversial in the beginning but it was the best thing for the students in the long run."
Superintendent Lynn Wright said he, too, supported a mandatory uniform policy.
"My primary interest is what is best for our students," Wright said. "Their safety and security and providing an environment that is conducive to learning is one of our primary concerns."
Wright said he had received 20 handwritten letters and 38 emails opposing uniforms. He said 10 of those emails were from the same person.
"I have been to ball games, suppers, and PTO meetings throughout the county since this," Wright said. "I've been on the campuses two to three times a week, and the support for uniforms is overwhelming. ... I had a call from a principal today before the meeting who said, 'Please don't let them reverse this.'"
Despite the negative backlash, Wright said he would hold strong to what he felt was best for the students, basing his decision upon recommendations from the United States Department of Education.
"I'm not in the business of selling uniforms," Wright said. "The Department of Education isn't in the business of selling uniforms. I can tell you this: If they said painting every one of your children's hair green would make them safer and more secure, I would be in favor of painting your children's hair green."
New Hope High School teacher Mark DeVenney had previously been placed on the committee to decide uniform colors and guidelines for each campus, and Wright asked the board's permission for DeVenney to present his findings, but Kilgore objected.
She also refused to allow Caledonia High School Assistant Principal Dr. Andy Stevens, who supports uniforms for his campus, to speak.
"Based on the survey, Caledonia doesn't want it," Clark said. " That's the proof."
Wright noted that only 50 percent of parents responded to the survey.
Stevens was allowed to speak at Gray's request.
"If we could fix dress code and cellphones, we would not have the majority of our discipline problems; they would be solved," Stevens said. "Every day, I could stand at the front door and get a teacher to try to track down the people that violate the dress code. It would take me all day long of sending folks home, calling parents, getting them out of the classroom where they need to be, to get this settled. I don't know how much more I can emphasize this is the way it needs to be, I understand a lot of the dissent has come from the Caledonia end of it, and a lot of has come from the elementary end of it. The way we've got it written, the elementary has a little bit more leeway to go with theirs. But as far as high school and middle school, I think this is the best thing we can do."
After a heated debate between board members, the motion to allow Caledonia's three schools, along with West Lowndes High School, to be exempt from the requirement and allowing New Hope campuses to opt out of the decision passed 3-1, with Barrett casting the lone vote against the motion.
Superintendent Lynn Wright Saturday clarified the board's decision.
"The way I understand it, the amendment to the amendment was that each school could choose to opt out," Wright said. "So now we've got to figure out how each school makes that decision.
He expressed disappointment about the board's reversal of its original decision to require uniforms at all nine of the district's campuses.
"I'm very disappointed that it was overturned, because I feel sincerely that it was in the best interest for our students and Lowndes County," Wright said. "It has been very successful in other places and in our two schools (West Lowndes elementary and middle school) that use the uniforms."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.