[UPDATE] Valdosta-Lowndes Schools Unification Picking Up Steam?

By: Gabrielle Sarann; Dontaye Carter Email
By: Gabrielle Sarann; Dontaye Carter Email

[Update] 11:30 PM 10-4-2011
by Greg Gullberg

The war of words over school consolidation in Valdosta continues with a meeting put on by Lowndes County Public Schools.

"I'm still trying to make my mind up," says Roy Taylor who is a father and a grandfather of children who have come through Lowndes County schools.

He has lots of questions about their scholastic future.

"I want to know if we combined them, is it going to save money? Then I want to know what they would do with that money, as far as educating our children."

"First of all, the Valdosta City School System is fighting for their very existence," says Dr. Steve Smith, Superintendent of Lowndes County Schools.

They are the ones who put on the meeting.

They're adamant against consolidation.

"There is little if any evidence that consolidation would lead to an increase in academic achievement. There is however substantial evidence that consolidation will increase expenses, and ultimately increase the millage rate, increasing taxes paid by the city and the county."

There's no mincing words at these meetings.

They know exactly how they want people to vote.

But for Roy Taylor, he's waiting to hear from both sides.

"Now what ever is best for the child is what we need to do."
While Lowndes County had its meeting, CUEE, the group pushing for consolidation, was planning to have a meeting the same night, but canceled.

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[UPDATE] 11:00 PM 9-28-2011

Community Unification for Educational Excellence also known as CUEE sent out these fact sheets about the school system.

School Administrators say the facts used don't give an accurate view of how the schools are performing.

"The Valdosta City Schools ranks in the bottom eight percent of the schools in the state of Georgia, said CUEE board member Rusty Griffin. "We have not been able to achieve AYP at the Valdosta High School in the last five years."

"Once again saying that this affects everybody nationwide. Again singling this out to make Valdosta High School look bad in the eyes of our public in an attempt to gain votes," said Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Bill Cason.

Residents will have the opportunity to vote on it November 8th.
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[UPDATE] 11:00 PM 9-27-2011

In a packed room residents lined up against the back walls just to hear what Former Troup County Superintendent Terry Jenkins had to say about school consolidation.

Jenkins has been in education for 43 years and experienced it first hand.

But he challenged residents to make the vote about the kids.

"You make the decision based on it being the right thing to do for the children to help them be successful. That has to be the bottom line," said Jenkins.

In recent months, the debate to unify Valdosta City Schools and Lowndes County Schools has heated up.

Community Unification for Educational Excellence also known as CUEE brought Jenkins down to tell residents what happens when school districts consolidate.

Some residents bought into what the Superintendent had to say.

"I do believe that if we do consolidate and have a unified curriculum and a way to address all students equally we will raise the boat," said Renee Parker.

Others didn't.

"I feel like both school systems provide more than adequate education," said Stan Rome.

Whatever the outcome, Jenkins hopes the decision is all about the children.
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[UPDATE] 5:54 PM 8-30-2011

It didn't take long for Lowndes County School Board to take sides.

"The Lowndes County Board of Education fully supports the position taken by the Valdosta City School System opposing consolidation," says Lowndes County Superintendent.

In just 15 minutes, the board voted to oppose the unification. Valdosta City Schools made its announcement Monday night.

"I'm very pleased that both school systems said this because this ballot initiative came from folks that have nothing to do with the schools," said Karen Noll, a Valdosta City Schools parent.

The Community Unification for Educational Excellence collected more than 7,000 signatures to put the referendum in voters' hands.

But both superintendents say the school systems are being forced to merge together at a time when it's not needed.

"It's like a bad marriage. You're putting two school districts together that really would rather be separate," says Valdosta City Schools Superintendent Dr. Bill Cason.

Lowndes County Superintendent Dr. Steve Smith agrees.

"I feel like we can accomplish just as much individually or separately as we could together," says Smith.

But members of CUEE don't agree.

"Graduation rate and test scores are dismal. We need to have education reform in order to improve the outcome," says CUEE board member Rusty Griffin. "Otherwise we're going to get what we always got."

CUEE will host an education planning meeting this Thursday evening at S.L. Mason Elementary School at 5:30.

It's open to the public.

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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

August 29, 2011

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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[UPDATE]8-20-2011

Rusty Griffin and members of the Community Unification for Educational Excellence are making history.

The group also known as CUEE collected more than 7,000 signatures for a petition to put a referendum on school unification on the ballot.

The City verified the names Friday.

"I think its a strong statement. The voters of the city of Valdosta want to vote on this issue," said Griffin.

But not everyone is happy about this historic moment.

Jennifer Steedley is a lifelong wildcat.

"We have so much to be proud of, we have so much to offer," said Steedley.

Not only is she the Public Relations person for the Valdosta City school system but the mother of three has strong family ties.

Her grandfather, mother and cousins all graduated from the city school system.

"We both have strengths. We both have weaknesses. But this situation is where two school districts that aren't necessarily asking for this maybe forced into this," said Steedley.

VCS will hold public forums about the school consolidation starting on September 8th at 7 at Valdosta High School Performing Arts Center.

The next will be held at Valdosta Middle School on September 20th at 7.
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FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
August 19, 2011

Release #: 08-11-06

CUEE Referendum Petition Drive

On May 12, 2011, the Community Unification for Educational Excellence (CUEE) group filed the appropriate paperwork to begin a petition drive with a goal of collecting enough signatures to have a referendum question placed on the November Municipal Election ballot. On July 11, 2011, the group provided the signed petitions to the City of Valdosta as required by law.

The city had 50 days from the date the petitions were delivered to verify the information. This has necessitated manually reviewing each and every one of the 10,090 signatures to confirm or deny them as valid, registered voters in the City of Valdosta as prescribed under the statute and Georgia law.

As of July 1, 2011, according to the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office, as provided by the Lowndes County Board of Elections, the total number of registered voters in the City of Valdosta was 28,274. O.C.G.A. 20-2-370 requires that the petition be signed by one-fourth of the qualified voters of the municipality. At the time the petition was presented and filed with the city, there were 28,274 voters qualified to vote in the city. This would require valid petitions signed by 7,068 qualified voters. According to the results of the verification process, 7,163 petitions were determined to be valid. Thus, the petition is certified to be valid, and the city will notify the Lowndes County Board of Elections to place the question before voters of the city in the November Municipal election.

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Valdosta, Georgia - August 13, 2011

The city of Valdosta says it's verifying the more than 93,000 signatures in favor of unifying Valdosta and Lowndes County schools.

Officials hope to announce the results by August 19.

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Valdosta, Georgia - July 2, 2011

A drive to unify two south Georgia schools hosts a community cookout.

CUEE, also known as Community Unification for Education Excellence, held a barbecue at McKey Park.

So far, over 9,316 Valdosta residents have signed the group's petition to consolidate Valdosta and Lowndes County schools.

"Virtually every school in the state of Georgia and around the southeast that has unified, we have seen their test scores go up, we have seen their graduation rates go up," says Rusty Griffin, the vice-chairman of CUEE. "We've seen dropout fall."

The deadline to sign CUEE's petition for unification is July 11.

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Valdosta, Georgia - June, 24, 2011

A referendum to unify Valdosta and Lowndes County schools may make it to the November ballot.

Since it was introduced in the early 1970's, the fight to unify Valdosta and Lowndes County schools has escalated.

"The problem is our children are not graduating from high school," says George Bennett, the petition drive coordinator for Community Unification for Educational Excellence (CUEE).

Bennett is going door-to-door petitioning for signatures.

His team now has the 7,375 needed to turn it into a referendum.

Bennett adds, "And the children that are graduating from high school are not literate enough in skills and reading skills and math skills to make it in the kind of world that we live in."

According to the Georgia Department of Education's Report Card, 71.9 percent of Valdosta seniors graduated last year, compared to 83.4 percent at Lowndes.

And for those who needed help catching-up in college, 21 percent of Lowndes students required remediation, versus 34.4 percent from Valdosta.

The plan has strong support among residents.

"I personally feel like we have got to strive to do everything we can to make the schools of our students be better and better," says retired educator Gail Eldridge, of Valdosta.

But for families like the Tillmans, they fear their voices may not be heard in a unified school system.

"I'm concerned that the small town feel of the Valdosta City School System will be lost through consolidation," says Wendy Tillman, whose three young children attend Valdosta city schools.

The nearly 7,900 signatures volunteers received will be turned over to the city of Valdosta on July 11.

They must be validated before the measure can appear on the November 8 ballot.


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