MADISON COUNTY, Ala. - The Madison County Board of Education passed a resolution opposing superintendent Matt Massey's proposal for a new school in the Monrovia area Thursday evening.
Massey's proposal, announced Wednesday at a press conference, was for a new high school to host 11th and 12th grades, with the current Sparkman High School hosting 9th and 10th grades.
Board member Dan Nash called Massey's press conference "a slap in the face."
Massey called the vote a step back for the school system, and a time to re-evaluate.
"When I was elected superintendent, I promised to make decisions that focus on what is best for our kids. This plan revolves around that promise," Massey said at the press conference.
At Thursday night's meeting he said, "What I don't want is a lose-lose for everybody in that community. And that's the expectation of people that have been advocating for a new school, and they find themselves not zoned for that school. I think that's heartbreaking and hard to take."
This was the first time the board has discussed the new school publicly in months. Some said attorneys were keeping their lips sealed, but the flood gates opened to a civil but urgent conversation Thursday.
Board members opposed to the plan raised questions about transportation, the benefit to the students, and overcrowding issues before passing the resolution blocking Massey's proposal for the new school.
"We have two great middle schools, what's stopping you from having two great high schools?" asked board member Jeff Anderson. "The smaller you make the school, the more personal service you get, and the more opportunities kids will have when you break it into two."
Board members want to see the community get more input so they can make a more informed decision, arguing that before the press conference there were no plans made public. Board member David Vess believes there needs to be more conversation and debate about the best way to go with the new school.
"That has concerned me all day long as I've thought about the press conference and what may come up tonight. I think we have to look at our community for the answers. The people I've heard from more have opposed this plan than has been for it. And that's just a small amount of people I've heard from. I don't think it's had time to sink in."
The meeting's discussion was one many believe has been long overdue.
"I think we have to look at everything. And I know time is of the essence, but this [conversation] should have happened a long time ago," commented board member David Vess.
What does this resolution mean?
The vote in opposition to Massey's idea wasn't a binding vote on grade configuration. Instead, it was just a way for board members to make time to hear more ideas, especially from the zoning committee chosen to find zoning solutions last year. Members of that committee were at the meeting Thursday too and are eager to have the zoning options they recommended brought back up.
"I'm very happy now the zone lines will come out and a community decision will be had," said Lisa Novak. "[Massey's plan] is such a paradigm shift in the way we educate children. It possibly could be the best idea in the world. But we don't know at this point and I think more research needs to go into that."
In contrast, Superintendent Matt Massey said this is a step back from a plan already in the hands of the Department of Justice and the NAACP LDF. He said, "It's just a reassessment. And that's what we'll do."
We're told this does not interrupt the construction timeline for the school. Leaders say they're about 4 months from having the design done, and the "dirt bids" will be ready in an estimated 6 weeks. That means the school will continue on the construction path, even without a plan for who will get to go to it.
Several county commission members were also at the meeting, sitting in the audience. They agreed with board members' calls for urgency in this process.
"The money is there, the county commission has made the sacrifice, the taxpayers have made the sacrifice, it's time to move forward," commented Dale Strong, who advocates for a 9-12 school. He claims a split school the way Massey proposed is "proven" not to work.
WHNT News 19 spoke to some local NAACP members in attendance also, who told us they were happy for the chance for more community input on the plan, and thankful that Massey's split proposal would not be the only option on the table.
So what's next?
The board decided to have the zoning committee (a handful of appointed community members) come to the next work session on March 10. There, they will be able to speak freely and help the board explore the options, including zoning lines they've previously recommended. This doesn't mean Massey's plan is off the table.
"I have hope that eventually the board can make a decision and we can move on and a school will be built that will be what's best for the community," said zoning committee member Larry Sevier.
The BRAC money is set to expire this summer.
We asked board member Anderson whether it will be difficult for everyone to agree on zoning lines. He said he's "confident" there is a zoning combination to be found, that the DOJ will approve.
The school system still must find a zoning plan the NAACP LDP and Department of Justice will approve, that will comply with a Federal desegregation order.