MADISON COUNTY, Ala. (WHNT) – Many Madison County residents Monday attended an open forum held by the county school board to argue against a new high school planned for the Monrovia area.
Those who spoke up at the forum were all residents of Harvest and Toney, who say they were surprised to learn the new school would not be built on a 92-acre plot of district-owned land near the intersection of Old Railroad Bed Road and McKee Road in their community.
That was the plan back in 2011, but Superintendent David Copeland reversed it last summer, citing a lack of funds. At that time, Copeland announced the district would use the $22 million in available funds to expand Sparkman High School and combine it with Sparkman Ninth Grade School.
Now, with $55.9 million in BRAC funding in hand, the district is again moving toward alleviating Sparkman’s overcrowding by building a new high school – but not where initially planned.
WHNT News 19 spoke to Dr. Copeland following Monday night’s forum.
“We always value the input of all our patrons,” said Dr. Copeland. “But I’ve worked with the board closely on this and I just really feel like the plan they have approved will do the most good for the most kids.”
Copeland says the board considered present and future growth statistics as a factor in choosing the Monrovia area for a new high school.
“We’ve looked at previous studies, we’ve looked at our present needs and our future needs, we’ve looked at the possibility of rezoning down the road, I mean nothing is out the window,” said Dr. Copeland. “A big issue was how we were going to zone that area. Well, that’s something we’ll have to discuss.”
Copeland says even though those discussions are crucial, he suggested concerns over the matter may be a bit premature considering a two to three year building process for the project, one he says will not likely begin until the start of the next school year.
As far as the already purchased parcel of land on McKee Road, Copeland says whether the property will become a liability or an asset remains to be seen.
“It certainly would not go up for sale any time soon,” says Copeland. “We certainly would hope to use it in maybe in future years but it certainly would be advantageous to us to have that, so I don’t have the answer of what we would do immediately with it but there would be no plans immediately to get rid of that land.”
While Copeland claims the board’s decision is the best for area parents and students, others cite socioeconomic differences, political motivation and even conflicts of interest as factors that lead to the Monrovia site choice.
Matthew Schmitz is a Madison County resident and 1996 graduate of Sparkman High School. He said the history of the debate goes far beyond Dr. Copeland’s hiring. Schmitz says it has been a long-standing argument from Madison County Commission Chairman Dale Strong since his first days as commissioner that he has always wanted a high school in Monrovia.
Schmitz contends many parents who live north of Highway 53 have long argued a high school would be best served in that area to alleviate crowding at both Hazel Green and Sparkman High Schools.
“I don’t have an argument either way,” says Schmitz, “but everyone in a leadership position is continuing to tout that they need to do what’s best for the residents, parents and students of Madison County and my argument is, let’s put your money where your mouth is.”
So Schmitz composed an open letter to the Madison County Board of Education proposing they allow the assembly of a 14-member panel with two representatives from each of the feeder schools in the affected area designated by each school’s PTA. He suggested the panel be chaired by someone with an objective but educated stance on the area and it’s residents; possibly retired Superintendent Terry Davis or even an independent leader.
“Get that group together,” says Schmitz. “Allow them to host citizen-on-citizen, parent-on-parent discussions in town hall settings at the seven feeder schools and then allow them to take the facts that have been presented to both the board and the county commission and give them six to eight weeks, and at the end of those six to eight weeks let them present what they think would be the most suitable location.”
Schmitz’s open letter to the board, which he shared with WHNT News 19, reads as follows:
“Madison County Board of Education and Madison County Commission Members:
Commission Chairman has long championed a Monrovia High School. The Parents in northwest Madison County have long argued for a high school north of Highway 53. Many have argued that Chairman Strong is doing this for personal gain. Chairman Strong has said this is best for Madison County and its residents. I suggest that we eliminate the bickering and arguing, eliminate the conflict of interest accusations and present a formalized and organized opportunity for the parents of Madison County school children in the affected area to weigh in. This is a fair and equitable opportunity to come to a solution and eliminates the perception of a conflict of interest and influence by Chairman Strong.
A committee of parents of 2 representatives from the PTA of each of the feeder schools selected by the PTA officers of the school. This creates an independent group of parents whose children will ultimately be affected by this decision.
Madison Cross Roads Elementary
A 14 person committee chaired by a retired Superintendent (Terry Davis or Ray Swaim) or an independent leader (LTG Pillsbury, BG Drolet, Joe Ritch- BRAC Chairman).
This group will be given six weeks to study all of the facts, hold town hall meetings at the seven feeder schools to receive input from the general population. After six weeks it will present its findings and a suggested location to the MCBOE and the MCC.
I think this will provide a true communication forum, provide an opportunity for parents to be truly involved in this decision.
I hope our leaders will involve the parents of our school children in a very important decision.”
Despite his admitted confidence in the board’s decision, Superintendent Copeland’s comments at the school forum Monday night seem to suggest everything is not set in stone.
“We want to hear all sides,” insists Copeland. “We’re not trying to do anything that’s not out in the open because we certainly want to be transparent.”
Besides the new high school, Copeland has said the money will be used to build a new intermediate school in the Lynn Fanning area, a new academic building at Madison County Elementary and a new wing at Madison County High.