Decatur is surrounded by communities that recognize strong public schools are essential to community growth.
The city's expanding industrial sector means many more people will consider a Decatur home, but population growth is stagnant and the average age is rising. Many who work in Decatur choose to live elsewhere.
One reason Decatur's success at luring jobs is not matched by success attracting residents is its schools. Competition from neighboring communities, already intense, is growing.
Morgan County last week agreed to buy land for a new Priceville High School. Hartselle is near completion of a $44 million high school. Madison recently opened a $58 million high school in Limestone County. Athens plans to build a state-of-the-art $50 million high school.
Decatur City Schools has a handicap not shared by most neighboring school districts: a high poverty rate. Children living in poverty tend to perform poorly on standardized tests. Many prospective residents rule out Decatur based on test scores alone.
If we want Decatur growth, investment in public education is essential. One option is to follow the lead of neighboring communities, which might mean a consolidated high school. Decatur City Schools could build the crown jewel of high schools. This might be the best solution to Decatur's competitive disadvantage in public education.
As the Decatur school board wisely seeks public input this month on the system's future, though, residents should not allow neighboring communities to define the competition.
For the price of a consolidated high school, Decatur could build several neighborhood elementary schools. Or it could invest in a pre-kindergarten program. Or it could consider stand-alone facilities for students in sixth grade or ninth grade. Or it could pursue novel options, setting a trend rather than following it.
The ideal vision for Decatur City Schools would maximize both educational opportunities for its students and economic development for the community.
Everyone who cares about Decatur should attend Decatur City Schools' three public meetings: Thursday, Dec. 17 and Dec. 18.
With a new superintendent, a committed school board, stable finances and a City Council that recognizes the importance of education to economic growth, this is the time for Decatur City Schools to think outside the box.
Rather than resort to tired cynicism, residents should seek input into decisions that will guide Decatur's future.
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