Superintendent Hines shows true political courage

Published 9:53 pm Monday, October 6, 2008

By By Tray Smith
The vandals who destroyed, albeit briefly, the physical appearance of Escambia Academy also destroyed a fallacy essential to the corrosion of Atmore’s cohesiveness: the idea our small town of less than 10,000 people can divide its resources between four competing school systems without fostering poisonous resentment. The devastation of EA property was not a mistake; it was the culmination of years of division in a community too small to be divided.
Adults in Atmore often wonder aloud how we “got here.” As they tell it, Atmore was once a community whose pride was in its unified school system, a system that enabled students and parents alike to look down at neighboring communities and rival schools. Over time, however, our school system became a clay pigeon; shot into thousands of pieces by the shotgun of division.
Indeed, Atmore has four school systems: Escambia County Alabama public schools, Florida schools, Escambia Academy, and numerous Christian schools that support hundreds of families who have schools of their own inside their homes. This proliferation of schools has caused great fragmentation in our community.
Thankfully, the Escambia County Board of Education took a huge leap in urging reunification during its September board meeting. Under the leadership of Superintendent William “Billy” Hines, the BOE nixed an agreement with Escambia County Florida that allowed 100 Alabama students to attend school at Bratt, Ernest Ward, and Northview. As a result, those students will return to Alabama schools when they complete their current level of education.
Of course, the number of Alabama students in Florida schools greatly exceeds 100. Several students claim residency with a relative who lives in Florida, others erect power poles on plots of land to provide a utility bill, and some blatantly lie. The most regrettable outcome of the BOE’s action last week is that students who legally attend school in Florida under the existing agreement will be forced out of their environment while the students who lie about their residency will continue to attend classrooms supported by Florida taxpayers.
However, by eliminating the agreement, Superintendent Hines and the school board have laid the groundwork for further action. Because there is no legal arrangement authorizing students to go to school in Florida, the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice can now investigate Florida schools and force them to strengthen their eligibility requirements by mandating parents show proof of Florida driver’s licenses, etc. U.S. DOJ can also investigate administrators in Florida schools who have been complacent in allowing Alabama students on their rolls. The Department of Justice has jurisdiction on this issue because it is responsible for enforcing laws that prevent students from ignoring school district lines if racial prejudice is a motivating factor.
By forcing these students back into Alabama schools, Mr. Hines is now responsible for making sure schools meet their needs when they get here. Leaving comfortable classroom settings is never easy for children, and they need to be assisted throughout this transition. Thankfully, Mr. Hines has a stellar team in place – ECMS’s Zickeyous Byrd and ECHS’s Harvey Means – to guarantee all Alabama students a quality education in Alabama.
Many Atmore residents, enthused by the BOE’s decision, are wondering why this agreement ever existed. “We initially implemented this agreement in order to allow our students to take advantage of classes Florida offers that are unavailable in Atmore schools” Superintended Hines explained in an interview Friday afternoon. “Now, because of the ACCESS distance learning initiative, students in our schools can take any class offered in the state. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense for these kids to continue going to school in Florida.”
Obviously, many parents will be upset as this decision is implemented and further investigations are opened. Eventually, though, the large number of students forced back into Atmore schools will make our public schools better for all of their students, and the process will unify our community behind our school system, as Brewton and Flomaton are unified behind theirs. Because all of the Alabama students in Florida schools will return to Alabama in one drove, the negative effects of their reintegration will be mitigated.
This step is not the only action we need to take to repair our schools and become more competitive economically, but it is a prerequisite for a better future for Atmore. It is a prerequisite for which we must thank Mr. Hines and the BOE, who showed true political courage in confronting this problem and defending the legacy of integration.
Tray Smith is a political columnist for the Atmore Advance. He is a student at Escambia County High School and can be reached at tsmith_90@

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