Valdosta Chamber favors school consolidation - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

Valdosta Chamber favors school consolidation

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VALDOSTA, GA (WALB) -

There's a bit of a war of words between chamber of commerce and school leaders in Valdosta over school consolidation.

The chamber wants voters to approve a consolidation referendum in November.

The Valdosta and Lowndes County school systems came out against the referendum.

In a letter to Valdosta City and Lowndes County school board members and superintendents, chamber leaders criticized Valdosta High School for not making Adequate Yearly Progress for five straight years.

Chamber Chairman Tom Gooding says a consolidated system would improve education and create a more educated workforce.

Valdosta Superintendent Dr. Bill Cason says the chamber is picking and choosing what information they want the public to hear.

"The number one complaint we get from our chamber members for the last several years is the lack of a trained educated workforce that's important not only to businesses but employees," said Gooding.

"I don't think they've done their research or if they have done their research they're not paying attention to the research clearly it shows consolidating two school systems this size is a negative not a positive," said Dr. Cason.

Here's the letter from the chamber:

September 9, 2011

TO: Valdosta City and Lowndes County School Board Members and Superintendents:

The mission of the Valdosta-Lowndes County Chamber of Commerce is to serve as a unifying force, a focal point for enhancing the economic, social and cultural well-being of the communities it serves. In this role, the Chamber has been a leading voice for many of the critical issues facing Valdosta and Lowndes County, including the ongoing debate around unification of our separate local school systems.

The Chamber does and will continue to energetically support school unification. Our Board of Directors voted unanimously to support unification and polling showed the overwhelming support of some 78% of our membership (over 1,500 strong) for unification as well. The Chamber did not take on this effort lightly and would not have done so without the belief that the unification of the two school systems would far outweigh any perceived disadvantages.

The business leaders of our community are disappointed that the debate around school unification has recently become divisive and more importantly misleading, based on emotional and fear arguments rather than facts. As you know the Chamber has been a long-time community advocate for children and believes a unified school system is the first step to ensuring equal opportunity, improving educational achievement, and thus enhancing the economic well-being of our entire community.

It has been said that "business" is behind the Chamber's unification efforts, as if making our city and county increasingly attractive to business and industry, which can provide jobs to both the parents of our children and, upon graduation, the children themselves, were a negative. It isn't.

Our existing businesses and industries are disappointed that our local public schools are not producing graduates who are qualified for today's workforce, not to mention the substantial number of students who drop out well before graduation. The statistical reality is that Valdosta High School has not met the State of Georgia's AYP (annual yearly progress) standards for five consecutive years. It is likely that when the state releases its graduation rates this year using the new, more accurate federal standard for measuring graduation rates, both of our school systems will show significant decreases in graduation rates.

Here in 2011 we continue to endure schools that are essentially segregated by economic status. Unless something changes dramatically, this community will continue to travel a path of racial and economic re segregation. The Chamber is disappointed in the recent actions taken by the two School Boards and also by Dr. Cason and Dr. Smith for blurring the facts in their recent letters to the editor of the Valdosta Daily Times. Yes, there indeed have been improvements in our schools and for that the Superintendents should be commended – but the overall pattern has not changed significantly and the overall outlook for all of our children is not encouraging. The Chamber also realizes school unification, by itself, will not be the sole answer to every challenge. But the data clearly shows that communities of our size with a single, unified school system are more successful in planning and implementing school reforms, have greater parent and community involvement, and build stronger professional programs for teachers and principals – all of which are critical factors in raising student achievement and sustaining academic gains over time.

The citizens of Valdosta clearly want the opportunity to vote on unification. More than 7,000 voters – more than those who have voted in recent City elections – signed the petition calling for the upcoming referendum. As we go forward, the Chamber urges both School Boards to support and encourage an open and fair dialogue about this issue. More importantly, rather than simply saying no to unification as both School Boards and both Superintendents have recently done, the Chamber also believes the community would benefit from the School Boards and their Superintendents coming forward to meaningfully participate in the dialogue of what a unified school system would look like and stating publicly that, should the referendum prevail – a very real prospect – on Nov. 8, both School Boards will work together to ensure a smooth planning and transition process to a unified school system. A number of communities throughout Georgia and the South have merged their city and county school systems during the past 15-20 years. Indeed, there are only some 22 separate city and specialized school systems left in Georgia versus 159 county school systems in our state. The results in terms of student performance, tax rates, retaining professional faculty and increased community support, while not perfect, are very encouraging. We would urge the School Boards and other interested parties to study those efforts.

The Chamber Board of Directors itself looks forward to meeting with members of both School Boards to discuss how we might work together on behalf of our children, sooner rather than later. We take this opportunity to formally invite the members of our School Boards and our Superintendents to meet with us. If not now, when?

Sincerely,

Tom Gooding, Chairman of the Board of Directors

Myrna Ballard, President

 

Here's a press release from August 29, 2011 on Valdosta City School's position on consolidation:

Valdosta Board of Education Releases Official Position on Consolidation/Unification

 The Valdosta City School Board opposes consolidating the Valdosta City and Lowndes County school systems at this time.  This Board feels that a decision to merge the two systems should be a collaboratively planned effort between the two school boards and citizens of both the city and county, along with those who have the best interest in educating all the children of our area.

The Valdosta City School Board is proud of our school system.  We have an organization that has been both academically and fiscally mindful of the needs of our students, and are committed to excellence.  We have strong, highly qualified leaders, teachers, and staff in place and through their effort; our students are showing continuous growth and improvement.  Our board will continue to support our students, leadership, teachers, and staff in improving the education for the children in our community.

We encourage the community to vote NO to consolidation at this time, and ask that those who desire consolidation come together with the two systems to discuss and plan the true feasibility of Valdosta City and Lowndes County eventually merging at a future time.  Ultimately, this decision must be acceptable by both school systems and city and county residents.

We welcome you to come out to one of three planned forums with the Valdosta City Schools to witness our commitment and to answer any questions you may have on this serious topic.  These forums will be September 8th at Valdosta High School (PAC), September 20th at Valdosta Middle School, and October 25th at J.L. Lomax Elementary School. 

As always, we appreciate the trust you have placed in us as the Valdosta City School Board and will continue to work toward constant strides for educational excellence in our schools.


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