School board tackles consolidation plan

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By Erin Hill

After months of debate and community meetings, a decision has been made: Gadsden County will have one high school next school year.
There was standing room only at the April 4 Gadsden County School Board meeting as the board voted on the fate of West Gadsden High, Gretna Elementary and St. John Elementary schools.
In the end, all the reconfiguration motions passed, though with the smallest possible margin: 3-2.
Ronte Harris, president of the Gadsden County Classroom and Teachers Association, said reconfiguration is not just about closing schools, but it’s also about putting the district in the right position to provide quality education.  He said while he doesn’t completely agree with everything in Gadsden Schools Superintendent Roger Milton’s plan, he does see it as a right-now plan for right-now issues facing the district.
“Teachers are tired of being at the bottom of every category in the state,” Harris told the board before they voted.
Milton’s first recommendation was to begin the process of applying for a legislative special facilities appropriation to construct a new K-8 school building to combine Stewart Street Elementary and Gadsden Elementary Magnet School.  According to the plan, which is on the district’s website, their goal is to make GEMS a school within a school.
Milton said he decided to break his proposal up into separate recommendations so it would be a gradual process.
School Board Chair Isaac Simmons said at the community meetings they discussed building a new school between Gretna and St. John, and he was willing to stick with that.
School Board Member Tyrone Smith said he thinks it makes more sense to build a new school for the larger number of students.
When it came time to vote on Milton’s second recommendation, school board members Audrey Lewis, who phoned in, Ronald Scott and Smith voted in favor of applying for funds to build a new school for Stewart Street and George Munroe, while School Board Members Charlie Frost and Simmons voted against it.
Also included in this second recommendation would be transferring grades four and five from George Munroe and St. John elementary schools to James A. Shanks Middle School.  Milton then suggested transferring Pre-kindergarten through third grade students from St. John Elementary to George W. Munroe Elementary School and discontinuing operations at St. John Elementary School.  He suggested making Shanks a middle school serving grades 4 through 8.
George Munroe is a failing school,” Frost said.  “You’re transferring them from an old school to an old school, and a failing school for no reason,” Frost said.
Simmons said the district is short 25 bus drivers.  
“I talked to the transportation director,” Simmons said.  “He can’t do it. Point blank.”
 He said transportation costs would eat up all dollars that are saved.
Again when it came time to vote, Lewis, Smith and Scott voted in favor of reconfiguring the aforementioned schools, while Frost and Simmons voted against it.
Lewis said if the superintendent sits down and plans with the current transportation director, or a new director, it can work.
Lewis said she the people in Gadsden County haven’t been fully informed on the good and bad that comes with reconfiguration.  She said throughout the community meetings, she has heard from a few parents, but mostly politicians and, in her opinion, people who were asked to come.  She went on to say something must be done to pay teachers more.
“If you don’t, you’re going to get the bottom of the bottom, and the lowest of the low,” Lewis said.
Simmons, who was on the board when Chattahoochee, Greensboro, Northside and Shanks high schools were closed to form East and West Gadsden, said at that time they promised all those same great things, which never happened.
Despite hearing from both sides, when it came to deciding about the high schools, the board was still split.
When school begins in August, students in grades 9 through 12 at West Gadsden High School will be transferred to the current East Gadsden High School. East Gadsden will be renamed.  
Milton said right now he calls it One Gadsden, but he said the board will receive input from the students and the community while deciding on a new name, mascot, and new colors.  He said the new name would be revealed over the summer.
During a press conference the day after the meeting, Milton addressed the transportation issue.  He said the district is not in need of 25 bus drivers.  He also said each school with afterschool programs required two buses.  He said they wouldn’t need as many buses for two high schools and two afterschool programs.
“Last but not least, I am a bus driver,” Milton said with a laugh.