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Chambers County Schools moves forward with closing LaFayette High, consolidating with Valley High

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Chambers County Board of Education

The Chambers County Board of Education has attempted to merge high schools in the past.

Beginning next school year, LaFayette High School will be closed. Its students will attend Valley High until the new consolidated school is completed in 2025. The LaFayette High building will eventually be renovated and reopened as a magnet school.

“The majority of our board felt like we’d had enough time and had enough information and so they voted on the Valley site,” said Chambers County Schools superintendent Casey Chambley. “We actually look to try to have some of the schematic drawings done in January or February and we hope to actually start moving dirt and start construction in June of 2023.”

The plan to bring the two schools under one roof is part of a much larger school consolidation plan for the Chambers County Board of Education. Several elementary schools and middle schools have already merged. The board’s plan aims to cut unnecessary spending as well make the school system unitary by eliminating the effects of past segregation.

In a recent press release, the Chambers County school board said, “The action to close and merge schools was carried out to ensure the schools are no longer racially identifiable and ensuring they are all equal.”

The board’s plan came together in July after Federal Judge Keith W. Watkins ruled in favor of their decision to consolidate the schools.

“The attorneys, the Board, and the United States face the unenviable and impossible task of trying to please everyone,” Watkins wrote in his July 5 ruling. “But someone has to make a decision— or else this sixty-year-old case would last for another sixty years.”

Past rulings

Watkins’ remarks referred back to a Feb. 12, 1970, ruling in the Lee v Chambers County Board of Education case. That order cited the school district for operating racially identifiable schools with disparities for minority students. Watkins’ ruling also comes 29 years after a 1993 agreed order called for the construction and operation of a single, consolidated high school in the school district.

“His job is to rule and make sure that decisions that we’re making are not creating another dual system with the law that was created in 1967 and 1970 to desegregate schools,” Chambley said, regarding Watkins’ decision. “It basically says that you have to have a unitary system and you can’t have a dual system, so you can’t have racially identifiable schools. You can’t have one race in one school and one race in the other. That looks like your system has a dual system.”

That “dual system” of “racially identifiable schools” comes out of Valley High being a relatively integrated school and LaFayette High being a majority black school. Just the populations of the two towns, however, would indicate a racial disparity between the two schools. The city of Valley is 54-percent white and 35-percent Black; the city of LaFayette is 26-percent white and 68-percent Black. However, the population difference between the two schools means Valley actually has more black students than LaFayette does.

“Valley High has about 650 students, and Lafayette High has right at 200,” Chambley said. “And so LaFayette High, out of the 200 There’s about 170-177 of those are black students. And in Valley it’s about 50/50.”

According to Chambley, Chambers County has around 3,100 students. 2,500 of those are serviced by the Valley area and 650 are serviced by the LaFayette area.

It became Chambley and the board’s job to balance the population.

According to the board’s press release: “The Board and Superintendent Casey Chambley are charged with balancing the ‘Green Factors’ to attain unitary status to effectively demonstrate that all effects of past segregation to the extent practicable have been eliminated. Once the court declares the district to be unitary, it will no longer be supervised by the courts as part of this desegregation order. The ‘Green Factors’ include student assignment, faculty & staff assignment, transportation, extracurricular activities, physical facilities, and resource allocation.”

When asked why there was still a difference in the schools 60 years after the initial desegregation order, Chambley said it was due to a change in demographics and other schools closing over the years.

“In 1970 when this happened, there were several other schools that were still open, like Five Points High School, Chambers County High School. The diversity was a lot different then than it is now.” Chambley said. “When they closed the mill town and then they closed Chambers County High in the early 90s or late 80s, and then they closed Five Points High, that changed things around the district.”

As demographics have shifted over the years, the Valley area became Chambers County’s population center, while LaFayette remained the county seat. Now that the schools are facing consolidation, that has proven to be another point of contention. Both Valley and LaFayette had a stake in having the new high school built in their towns. The decision to put the school in Valley has not come without some amount of debate.

Why not LaFayette?

LaFayette Mayor Kenneth Vines was firmly on the side of building the new school in his town. However, he says he feels like the Chambers County school board didn’t give LaFayette fair treatment in its decision process.

“I just feel like the City of LaFayette never really had a fair shot,” Vines said. “We were first. We had a package and plan put together way before Valley. And, you know, this is the result we see.”

According to Vines, no surveyors ever came to talk to anyone in LaFayette about their proposed location. He also says LaFayette was overlooked because of a perceived lack of water and sewer even though the city recently updated its water and sewer systems at the proposed high school location.

“They pretty much made up their mind probably a few years ago what they were going to do with the school system,” Vines said. “They just carried us through the formality and whatever the court system said they had to do to get us through the process. But it wasn’t nothing serious.”

Vines said he was also concerned about the economic impact the decision would have on LaFayette.

“After these football games and events and stuff like that, our stores flourish,” Vines said. “That helps small business. So now, not only are you taking the students away from us and taking the school, you’re also hurting us economically. So now you’re taking something from us that we depend on.”

Valley Mayor Leonard Riley, however, called the news about the school being put in Valley “a good thing.” He said the City of Valley donated the land for the project.

“It’s right next to the football stadium,” Riley said. “It’s fairly flat, it’s got big 12-inch water line, it’s got sewage, it’s got everything. It’s ready to go. You just need to design the building and hire a construction company.”

Transportation costs

The board of education said it looked at multiple factors while deciding where the school should go. Issues including population, transportation, and the fact that Chambers County is split between two time zones were all problems that they had to consider.

When looking at population, LaFayette High School zoned students equaled 33-percent of the overall enrolled students for the new consolidated high school. The remaining students across the district comprised the Valley school zone. They would make up 67-percent of the enrolled population for the new consolidated high school.

“This was another factor in the transportation analysis as nearly 67-percent or two-thirds of the students would have to commute to sight No. 1 in LaFayette if the new high school was located there,” the board said in its press release.

According to the board, transporting all 9th-12th grade students in the district to the LaFayette location would equal 10,880.6 miles. In contrast transporting all 9th-12th grade students to the Valley location would equal 6,635.7 miles.

The board estimated the round-trip costs to transport students to LaFayette would be $6,463,076.40 annually. The round-trip costs for transporting students to Valley would be $3,941,605.80 annually.

“It was more financially and fiscally responsible of us to do that,” Chambley said about putting the school in Valley rather than LaFayette. “And it was also safer for us to do that strictly from the standpoint of numbers driving.”

Time zone difference

Regarding the issues with the time zone difference, Chambley acknowledged that it was problematic. Students that live in the far north of Chambers County would have to get up much earlier just to get to class, which will now be in the far southwest part of the county.

“The Valley region of our area has always been on Eastern Time and the northern part of the county and the LaFayette area has always been on Central,” Chambley said. “If the Valley School started at 7:30, well, that’s 6:30 Central Time, which causes a major issue.”

Mayor Riley, however, gave a simple answer.

“The City of Valley would go to Central Time if we had to,” he said. “We don’t feel like they ought to get on a bus at 4:30, 4:45 in the morning. They shouldn’t have to get up that early. Both schools need to be on Central Time.”

“We had to take emotion out of the process when making this decision,” Chambley said in the press release. “It was imperative that we focus on the long-term financial commitment of the district as well as ensuring we are using the tax payers dollars as efficiently as possible.”

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