May 16, 2013 10:58:09 AM
Sarah Fowler - firstname.lastname@example.org
Lowndes County Superintendent Lynn Wright is concerned the district may be judged to have misappropriated taxpayer funds if their vote opposing starting an alternative school in the county is not reversed.
Currently, the district's alternative school students attend the alternative school operated by the Columbus Municipal School District at its Hunt facility. Wright has advocated opening an alternative school for district students at the sparsely-populated West Lowndes Middle School as a means of saving money.
"I feel it is a gross misuse of taxpayers' money to continue to pay Columbus Municipal School District $260,000 a year to house our students in alternative school when we have the facilities and the personnel to do it ourselves at a savings of anywhere from $150,000 to $240,000," Wright said.
The county currently pays to educate 40 students at the Hunt alternative school. The school can house up to 60 students.
Friday, the school board voted 3-1 to reject Wright's proposal. The vote came unexpectedly and appears to be the result of a "quid pro quo" arrangement among a trio of board members -- Jacqueline Gray, Brian Clark and Jane Kilgore. Gray initially voted for a county-wide school uniform policy while Clark voted against the proposal. Kilgore did not attend the meeting when the vote was taken on the uniforms.
Friday, Gray, who lives in the West Lowndes area, abandoned her support of the school uniforms and voted to rescind the district-wide uniform policy in favor of a proposal that would allow individual schools to opt out of the plan.
Uniform opponents Clark and Kilgore then joined Gray in voting against the alternative school plan at West Lowndes Middle School.
The county entered into a three-year contract with CMSD in February 2010 to teach its alternative school students. When that contract expired, Wright said he and assistant superintendent Dr. Robin Ballard saw an opportunity to save the district considerable money while simultaneously addressing the issue of a decreasing population at West Lowndes Middle School.
"It could be covered at little or no expense," Wright said. "Realistically, we could save anywhere from $150,000 to $240,000 by placing it there because these are teaching positions that we have are already on staff," he said.
Wright said the recommendation to create an alternative school at West Lowndes is based on low enrollment at West Lowndes Middle School. Currently, 103 students attend West Lowndes Middle School and 95 students are projected to attend the school in the 2013-2014 school year. Designed to hold 500 students, the middle school will be only 25 percent full in the 2013-2014 school year.
Those numbers stand in contrast to 596 students at New Hope Middle School and 484 students at Caledonia Middle School.
Wright said it costs the county $13,528 per student at West Lowndes Middle School while the costs to the district at New Hope Middle School and Caledonia Middle School are $5,344 and $4,785 respectively.
Also, because there are four core classes that must be offered throughout the day, some classes have as few as three students at West Lowndes Middle School. In one period, a sixth-grade English class has three students while a seventh-grade English class has six students. A math course and a beginner band class also have only three students.
"Over the years the enrollment has dropped but there has not been any reduction in force," Ballard said. "We've kept our teacher population, but our student population has decreased."
In order to avoid eliminating teacher positions, Wright said he and Ballard proposed placing the alternative school at West Lowndes.
"We're looking at 95 students for next year, so when we had our budget meeting and were looking at what was requested, we went back and looked and compared all the numbers with the staff and said, 'We can't do this. There's no way. But if we put an alternative school there, these people could be teaching alternative school.'"
After a thorough check to make sure the district had the required number of certified teachers, Wright said he was confident creating an alternative school at West Lowndes Middle School would be a way to save the jobs of the teachers employed there.
"We could do it with existing staff and not have to cost anybody their jobs," he said.
Wright said teacher contracts for the 2013-2014 school year were renewed under the assumption an alternative school would be placed at West Lowndes.
"We were under the assumption that we would have the alternative school there," he said. "We did not renew our contract back in February with Columbus Municipal School District because we knew, it was like a common-sense thing. I mean, this is crazy: We could house it out here ourselves and save a lot of money."
Since the board would have the final say-so on approving the move, Wright and Ballard took school board members Jane Kilgore and Dr. Wes Barrett on a tour of the facility several months ago.
"It was just room after room that was empty, rooms that are being used to store desks or books," Ballard said. "They have room."
Added Wright: "It is practically the whole back half of the middle school. You could house 200 students back there in the back. There is enough room. The back wing back there has the restroom facilities. We could seclude (the alternative school students). They would have their separate entrance."
Dr. Yolander Jones, social worker and positive behavior specialist for the district, said she supported the plan to move the students from Hunt to West Lowndes Middle School.
"I think we need our own (alternative school)," Jones said. "I just think if we had our own program, we would be more in line with what we're doing in our district."
Jones said that in the city school district, students are only admitted to the alternative school at the beginning of every nine weeks. If the county had their own, they would allow the student to be placed in the program immediately after the kind of infraction that would send a student into the alternative school program.
"If we had our own, the student could continue right where they were and it would just be so much better," she said.
Jones and Ballard referred to an "instructional gap" that occurs when the student leaves a district with a "B" rating and leaves to attend a school with a "D" rating, such as the Columbus district.
"You're going to be taught at this level with this instructor that is doing it completely different," Jones said. "So, yes, they would suffer from that."
Jones said while she has a positive working relationship with the city schools, she feels county students should be educated in the county.
"Nobody takes care of your own like you do yourself," she said.
Wright said he hopes the school board will reconsider its decision and allow the district to create an alternative school at West Lowndes Middle School.
"We're hoping common sense will prevail and we'll be able to do what's in the best interest of the Lowndes County School District," Wright said.
Even if the board does not vote to allow an alternative school at West Lowndes, the students will not be returning to the alternative program in the city and other options yet to be determined will be put in place, Wright said.
"We have a duty to the community and the Lowndes County School District to utilize our resources in the best interest of our students and citizens of Lowndes County," Wright said.
Sarah Fowler covers crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.