It was an issue that divided Union County - consolidating its three high schools.
From January to April, the Union County School District's effort to close Jonesville and Lockhart high schools and combine them with Union High School dominated the headlines. The county was divided with people in Jonesville and Lockhart opposed to consolidation and those in Union in favor of it. This division was reflected on the Union County Board of School Trustees with Union trustees supporting consolidation and the Jonesville and Lockhart trustees fighting it every step of the way.
As part of our look back at 2007, The Union Daily Times has compiled an overview of the main events of the consolidation story, including comments from some of the trustees involved. The divisions that defined the consolidation battle persist today, with Union trustees certain they did the right thing and their Jonesville and Lockhart counterparts just as certain an injustice has been done.
Trustee Kakie White says that while she understands the feelings of those opposed to consolidation, she still feels it was the right thing to do.
“I think it was a matter of finances and a matter of making sure all our students received the same educational experiences,” she said. “I think it was done for all the right reasons that I've listed. I can understand the feelings of those individuals in Lockhart and Jonesville that were brought by the closing of the schools.”
Mrs. White pointed out, however, that the transition has gone smoothly and she thanked those who made it possible - the students.
“I think the outcome of consolidation has proved that the right decision was made and I give all the credit for the smooth and orderly transition to the students; they have made it work,” she said. “I think the majority of the students see the benefits of the consolidation and I hope they can look back on this and see that the trustees had their well-being in mind all along.”
Jonesville Trustee Donna Sanders, however, remains opposed to consolidation and still feels the board did not act in the best interests of the students. She said she also believes consolidation is not going as well as it's been presented.
“I am still opposed to it; the board took away parents' choice,” she said. “I am uncertain that things are going as smoothly as we're led to believe.
“I think because the numbers of students at Union County High School is so high some students are getting lost,” she said. “There are teachers that are sharing classrooms because there's not enough space.”
Consolidation spurred Jonesville and Lockhart residents to launch an effort to establish a charter school. As of November, organizers had obtained a charter from the state allowing them to open the school next year; appointed a governing board; and were taking applications for enrollment.
Although her husband is a member of the charter school's governing board, Mrs. Sanders declined to say whether or not she supports it. However, she said that the charter school “will allow parents another choice for educating their children.”
Rumors of consolidation
Battle lines started forming in January when rumors began spreading that the board was considering closing Jonesville and Lockhart high schools as part of a $45 million building program it initiated near the end of 2006. Things began to heat up when Superintendent Dr. Thomas White questioned the legality of Act 301, the law that required a unanimous vote of the board to close a high school. White said the district's attorneys had told him the law might be unconstitutional because it applied only to Union County.
On Jan. 22 a facilities report commissioned by the school board stated that it would cost more than $13.5 million to fix health and safety problems at Jonesville and Lockhart high schools. A day later, Lockhart Town Council voted to donate $500 to the Save Our Schools Fund to help pay for a legal fight against any attempt to close Jonesville and Lockhart high schools.
A Jan. 29 special meeting of the board to receive public comments on the issue drew a crowd of nearly 800 people. Jonesville and Lockhart residents said they were willing to merge with each other, but not with Union.
On Feb. 5, the board voted 7-2 with Mrs. Sanders and Lockhart trustee Kim Bailey opposed to consolidate the district's 9-12 programs and transfer all students in those grades to Union High School. The motion also asked the Union County Legislative Delegation to repeal Act 301.
The board's decision placed the matter squarely in the lap of State Rep. Mike Anthony, the county's only resident legislator and chairman of the delegation. On Feb. 13, Anthony said he was introducing legislation to repeal the unanimous vote law. Three days later he voted to approve his legislation and sent the issue to the county's three state senators.
Sen. Harvey Peeler (R-Gaffney) opposed repeal while Sen. Linda Short (D-Chester) favored it. The balance was held by Sen. Jim Ritchie (R-Spartanburg) who was initially undecided. Ritchie voted in favor of consolidation after being assured by the board that it would change Union High School's name, colors and mascot.
The vote to repeal stunned opponents and prompted a March 1 walkout by nearly two dozen Jonesville High School students. They were suspended for five days by the school district.
A protest drawing some 30 people took place on the road on front of Union High School on March 12. This did not prevent the board from voting 7-2 that night to move forward with and complete the consolidation process.
On March 10, White announced the appointment of a 24-member committee to recommend a new name, colors and mascot for Union High School. On March 25, the committee announced that it would recommend to the board that the new consolidated high school be called Union County High School. The committee also recommended that the mascot be the Wolfpack; and its colors be navy blue, silver and white.
On April 9, however, the board to accept the name but rejected the new colors and mascot. In a bitter debate preceding the 7-2 vote, Mrs. Bailey and Mrs. Sanders reminded their Union counterparts that the board had voted in February to change the school's name, colors and mascot. Union trustees Manning Jeter and John Rampey, however, said the board had reserved for itself the final word on the changes.
The Union majority's decision jump-started the drive by Jonesville and Lockhart residents to organize a charter school. By November, organizers had obtained a charter allowing them to open in 2008; appointed a school board; and were taking applications for enrollment.
The Union majority's decision angered Ritchie who said the board had misled him and he vowed to retaliate by redrawing school district lines so Union County could have a board that kept its word. He introduced legislation on April 18 to do just that, but it was not ratified by the Senate.
Even as the controversy continued to play out, the district continued moving forward with its building program. Ground was broken earlier this month on the new K-8 school for Jonesville and 6-8 school for Union. The program also includes the reorganization of the K-5 system in Union with a new elementary school which will be located in either Sims Junior High or Excelsior Middle School.