Officials, residents weigh in on school consolidation

Published 2:03 pm Thursday, August 1, 2019

School consolidation is not a new issue for citizens of Stanly County. It has been discussed repeatedly over the years.

A form of consolidation occurred in 1996 when Albemarle City Schools merged with the county school system to create the current Stanly County Schools.

As consolidation has been brought back into focus through comments by Albemarle Mayor Ronnie Michael, more than 30 public officials and residents were interviewed concerning the issue.

Their responses reflect the divisiveness this issue has caused in the community and in local politics the last several years.

“We need to consolidate into two high schools,” Michael told The Stanly News & Press in June.

He believes that with two high schools, more classes and opportunities could be offered to students.

“I just think we don’t have enough students to support four high schools,” he said.

He is not alone with his consolidation views.

“We have a small county,” said Locust Councilman Rusty Efird, who supports consolidation.

He said the county is losing students to home schools. Over the last decade, the county’s homeschool population has increased 112 percent while Stanly County Schools has lost 12 percent of its student population.

“It’s hard to provide a quality high school when your numbers continue to drop — that’s a reason for concern,” Oakboro Councilman Bud Smith said.

Smith, a retired West Stanly High School principal, thinks the county will be forced to consider consolidation with the school system’s declining student population.

“I would think we’d have our heads in the sand if we didn’t look at that possibility,” he said.

Many proponents of consolidation point to a chance for better programs and opportunities brought by larger school populations.

Aza Hudson, who recently retired as chorus and handbell teacher from North Stanly High School, supports consolidating high schools.

“By bringing the schools together, you would have everything on one campus and students would have more opportunities,” she said.

For a music teacher, she said consolidation would work because there would be a larger student population to pull from.

Hudson said she could not offer certain music classes year-round at North because the school population was too small.

More classes could be offered with a larger student body, she said.

Albemarle Mayor Pro-Tem Martha Sue Hall said the county needs to be fiscally responsible and responsive to the needs of the students. That means offering students more access to specialized and AP courses, she said.

She favors consolidating into two high schools because it would allow students the chance to take specialized courses.

Hall said people in the county need to stop being so “territorial” and realize “what’s good at one part (of the county) is good for the entire county.”

For some people, consolidation is past due.

Consolidation “is something that should have happened some 10 years ago,” Badin Councilman Ernest Peoples said.

Peoples said Stanly County is too small for all of the four high schools.

Others were blunt about their views on the school system.

Albemarle Councilman Chris Bramlett said at a recent council meeting that “there’s no way on God’s green earth” the county can have four small great high schools offering high-quality courses for students.

Albemarle Economic Development Director Mark Donham said the state of the school system has impacts far beyond the underperforming test scores or lack of opportunities.

“The education provided to our K-12 in Albemarle is devastating to our community,” Donham said.

He believes the city’s poverty rate, which has increased over the last few decades, is the main reason why.

“Our schools are probably the weakest thing we have right now,” Donham said.

“There’s a lot of good information that points to the fact that consolidation would be good,” Donham added. He mentioned that Carlsbad, N.M., where he used to live, consolidated and built one high school and it’s “outstanding.”

He thinks consolidation of the high schools would increase enrollment, which would help decrease the poverty concentration and entice businesses to come to the county.

But while there are many strong voices supporting the idea of combining schools, there are also strong voices with reasons for keeping the community school system as it is.

The majority of school board members are against consolidation, but many said they were open to the idea if someone were to present a credible argument.

If someone can convince him consolidation is necessary and needed for the county, Board member Anthony Graves said: “I will volunteer to put on a hard hat and drive the bulldozer and level a school.”

“I’m not against school consolidation,” he added. “I’m against school consolidation if it’s not absolutely necessary because of the impact it has on the community that could potentially lose a school.”

Board member Patty Crump said she would “sit and consider it” if a consolidation plan was presented.

But until a plan is presented that makes sense to the community, she continues to support the voters who elected her who want community schools.

“The last school board election, the people sent a pretty clear message that they weren’t interested in doing any kind of consolidation,” Board Chairman Melvin Poole said.

He called it “preposterous” to talk about school consolidation until someone shows him from where the money would come.

Poole said most of the people he talks to about consolidation have no idea how much it will cost.

Montgomery County Schools, which will close both of its high schools next year, received a $69 million loan from the United States Department of Agriculture to build a new high school and career and technical education center, which will both open in 2020.

Poole said consolidation has become a political issue with elections next year.

“People are trying to stir up a political issue that’s not there,” he said.

County Commissioner Ashley Morgan said he is 100 percent in favor of community schools.

“It will cost more money to build new schools than it will to fix up the ones we presently have and get them up to par,” he said.

Norwood Town Council members Betty Harrison and Wes Hartsell both oppose consolidation because of the extra travel it would cause students, especially if South Stanly students had to travel to West Stanly.

“That’s a long way,” Hartsell said.

He hoped the county would do everything it could not to consolidate the schools.

“There’s a huge amount of pride at each school,” he said. “That (consolidation) would be just a back breaker.”

Many other officials remain on the fence about the issue.

“My views are the general public needs to make that decision, regarding consolidation,” County Commissioner Bill Lawhon said.

He does not believe it is an issue the commissioners or any other public officials should have to decide.

Commission Chairman Matthew Swain said consolidation is a matter for the school board.

“Ultimately that’s not my decision,” he said. “That is going to have to be a school board decision, whatever they decide.”

Swain said if consolidation was chosen, he would be in favor of building new schools rather than renovating current ones.

He said “it just creates animosity” when students from one school have to go to another.

“If you forced a whole age range of students from Albemarle High to go to North Stanly, you’re going to create a lot of issues because nothing at North Stanly belongs to those students — it’s not their school culture,” Swain said.

Commissioner Tommy Jordan does not have a set opinion about consolidation, but he said he would be glad to be part of the conversation once or if a decision is made.

While Locust Councilman Larry Baucom is neither for nor against consolidation, he said the issue will not go away anytime soon.

With “what took place in Montgomery County,” he said, “and what is taking place around us and with technology and innovation being what it is, I think it’s something that we will have to look at very seriously. Probably quicker than later.”

David Grigg, a lawyer who served as chairman for the inaugural Stanly County School Board in 1996, said while he did not have a strong opinion about consolidation, SCS needs to have high quality schools.

“I don’t think we have that perception now,” from potential businesses looking to come to Stanly, he said.

“The bottom line is we have got to do whatever it takes to get our kids prepared,” Richfield Councilman Jim Misenheimer added.

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About Chris Miller

Chris Miller has been with the SNAP since January 2019. He is a graduate of NC State and received his Master's in Journalism from the University of Maryland. He previously wrote for the Capital News Service in Annapolis, where many of his stories on immigration and culture were published in national papers via the AP wire.

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