Lawrence school board votes to close R.A. Hubbard

A school board decision to close R.A. Hubbard will be presented to a federal judge later this month. If the action is approved, the North Courtland school faces permanent closure as early as May. 

The large crowd packing the meeting room of the Lawrence County Board of Education held a collective breath as the decision to close R.A. Hubbard High School passed 4-1, with District 1 board member Christine Garner casting the lone opposing vote. 

Under the plan proposed by Lawrence Schools Superintendent Jon Bret Smith, students who live in the former Hazlewood High School zone will attend Hatton High and students who live in the R.A. Hubbard zone will go to East Lawrence Middle or East Lawrence High.

Because the Lawrence school system is under a desegregation order, the closing proposal must be presented and approved by a federal judge. 

School board attorney Christopher Pape said he hopes to have the motion filed by Dec. 17. If the board’s action is approved in a federal court, the North Courtland school could permanently close its doors in May. 

“It was a hard night. It was a hard decision,” said Smith. “I respect anybody wanting the best for R.A. Hubbard students. I believe that my recommendation and the board’s vote were the right choice for the students.”

The superintendent said closing R.A. Hubbard would lower the Lawrence County Schools’ operational costs, improve the system’s racial balance and enable it to provide a greater selection of courses for all students. With about 24.5 students per grade, R.A. Hubbard offers few electives.

Pape said the proposal was drawn after years-long discussions about an R.A. Hubbard school closure. 

“Was there ever a discussion on how to keep R.A. Hubbard open or improve the school?” said J.E. Turnbore, president of the Lawrence County Chapter of the NAACP, who advocated to keep the predominantly Black school open. “No board member came to me asking for our input. How can something so morally wrong be so legally right?”

Garner, who represents the northern area of the county that includes R.A. Hubbard, said the school deserves the same support the other public schools in the county receive.

She said Hazlewood High in Town Creek, which also is in District 1, was closed in 2009 and consolidated with R.A. Hubbard. The elementary students in North Courtland and Courtland are bused to Hazlewood Elementary.

“Why is it about closing all the high schools in District 1? All the students need is support from the superintendent and board,” she said. “I’m not convinced it is about the increased number of electives offered at the other schools. The kids need to learn how to study. They don’t need to go to East Lawrence High or Hatton High to be a doctor or lawyer.”

Garner made a motion to table the closure vote until the board’s January meeting, but her motion died for lack of receiving a second. 

District 2 board member Gary Bradford made the motion to vote on the issue. District 5 board member Reta Waldrep seconded the motion.

Shortly after the vote to close the school was passed, Garner said she wasn’t feeling well and left the meeting. 

Declining attendance and rising costs

Smith and supporting board members have cited declining enrollment at R.A. Hubbard since 2009 and rising costs per pupil were leading factors in the decision to close the grades 7-12 school. 

According to Lawrence County school data, the per-pupil cost for R.A. Hubbard’s 147 students is $18,030 this year, seventh highest in the state. That amount includes local, state and federal funding.  

The local funding per student is more than twice as high at R.A. Hubbard than at any of the other three high schools in the county. Pape said the system is paying $3,525 for each Hubbard student. The cost at Hatton High is $1,461; East Lawrence High is $1,377; and Lawrence County High is $1,197.

Following the 2009 consolidation of Hazelwood High and R.A. Hubbard, school records show enrollment dropped from 323 in 2009-2010 to a low of 127 in 2016-2017.

Turnbore asked why Hatton High couldn’t close and those students be bused to North Courtland.

Smith said 425 students attend Hatton High and “we’ll be disrupting fewer kids.” Enrollment at East Lawrence Middle is 400, and East Lawrence High is 377.

More than a dozen people, including Turnbore, spoke before the board vote to support keeping R.A. Hubbard open. 

A 2014 R.A. Hubbard graduate, Dymond Young, was also among delegated speakers at the heated meeting. 

Young, who received a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry from the University of North Alabama, said she also pursued a graduate degree from the University of Alabama at Birmingham with a 4.0 grade point average.

“That strong foundation came from R.A. Hubbard…I want the students behind me to have that same privilege,” a tearful Young said. “We do not need to play with the welfare and education of these kids. I am asking you, please do not close R.A. Hubbard.”

The board had asked for community feedback beginning Nov. 1 after the proposal to close the school was presented to the board. Pape said 17 responses were received, and two of them were blank.

Travel concerns for students

Of the 17 responses and comments made from represtatives who voiced opposition to the plan in Monday night’s meeting, several R.A. Hubbard school advocates raised concerns about transporting students safely from the northern portion of the county to new schools. 

“Students will be standing at bus stops early in the morning and returning at dark late in the afternoon. Are you going to provide security at those stops for these students?” Dr. May Watkins Bolden asked board members before votes were cast. 

Bolden argued that spending on security at bus stops and other transitional services outlined in Smith’s proposal would not be as cost effective as letting the school remain open. 

“A close-knit community will be dismantled; students will be displaced,” she said. “Please don’t tell me about numbers, about sports, or about money when we as leaders should provide all children with an educational experience.”

Turnbore agreed. “Busing our students 25 to 30 minutes one way is not solving any desegregation issues,” he said. “It’s not good for the kids.”

Statistics presented during a board meeting Nov. 1 showed Hubbard’s student body is 70.55% Black and 29.45% non-Black. East Lawrence Middle School is 8% Black, East Lawrence High is 9.81% Black and Hatton High is 1.41% Black. After the proposed moves, those percentages will be 11.75%, 18.34% and 9.31% respectively.

Garner said she is afraid the R.A. Hubbard students will be treated unfairly by teachers at the schools they would attend following closure.

“I don’t expect the other schools will be fair to our kids,” she said. “I hate to say that about the teachers there. I want what is best for the kids. That is to keep them where they are. I’m afraid teachers will look at them and say he or she is a B or C student and won’t help them excel and reach their potential.”

Bradford, who represents the Hatton area, said he fielded “several calls” from people from North Courtland encouraging him to vote to keep the school open.

“Emotions on this issue are high,” said Bradford, a board member since 2006. “I understand that. I remember consolidation last time (2009). I’m still praying about things. It’s a very serious decision.”

Bradford added the Hatton community is “receptive” to adding the R.A. Hubbard students to its high school.

R.A. Hubbard was labeled “failing” in 2018-2019 because the academic performance of students as measured by standardized tests was in the bottom 6% of schools statewide in three of the most recent five years.

In testing last spring, 33.3% of Hubbard students were deemed proficient in English on the Alabama Comprehensive Assessment Program and only 6.85% were proficient in math.

“We’ll give them adequate time to become familiar with the campus,” Smith said. “The students will be assigned a mentor. It’s important they have familiar faces at the new schools. I have provided plenty of rationale for these considerations.”

Pape and Smith said community feedback will help ensure the school system is able to adequately accommodate the impacted students. Pape said plans to help the students acclimate to their new schools are not final and will still be able to be revised during multiple court hearings concerning the closure.

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