SOCIAL CIRCLE — The Social Circle Board of Education is facing a looming deadline on the issue of Zone 5 but local officials seem confident a deal can be reached before the stroke of midnight.
Although Social Circle has a city school system, serving primarily students who live within the city limits — and, given its unique status, any student from outside the system who wishes to pay tuition to attend school there — the district also services students in a long swath of land in south Walton County that since 1968 has been referred to as Zone 5. For decades, all students from that area, although officially within the Walton County School District, have instead attended Social Circle, coming to represent a large swath of the city’s enrollment.
“Zone 5 has 500 to 600 students,” SCBOE Chairman John Callahan said. “We have about 1,800 students. It’s a large part of our student population.”
Cory Kirby, attorney for the school system, explained the history of Zone 5 to the assembled crowd at Thursday night’s meeting of the SCBOE, which was held in the gym of Social Circle Middle School to find room for an expected large crowd.
“Zone 5 was created back in 1968-69,” Kirby said. “This school district was created, as was the Walton County School District, and it all came down to desegregation.”
As part of court-mandated desegregation order, the judge created Zone 5 to balance numbers between the two districts and began to send students from that part of the county, including Jersey, to Social Circle schools. The Walton County School District was also required, under the order, to seek court review of any new redistricting efforts.
For years, this was handled solely under the court order, but in the mid-1990s, the two districts met and came up with an agreement to formalize their relationship and possibly sunset Zone 5 in the future.
“In 1996, they came up with an intergovernmental agreement,” Kirby said. “This would set the terms for 25 years and terminate on June 30, 2021.”
In 2006, Kirby said, Walton County sought relief from the desegregation order in the form of unitary status, which would put an end to court review of district lines.
“The NAACP and the Department of Justice agreed as long as Zone 5 stayed in place,” Kirby said.
At that time, the two school systems amended their agreement and gave all families in Zone 5 a one-time choice to choose which school system they would attend. At the time, the vast majority of families chose to stay within the Social Circle system, and new residents given the same choice still seem to favor SCCS.
The new system did change the role of the two Zone 5 board members on the SCBOE, who had previously been voting members of the board. Following unitary status, they were no longer full members and served only on an advisory level.
“The Zone 5 members are not legally required,” Kirby said. “They are here at the pleasure and request of the elected board members.”
Randy Carithers, one of the Zone 5 board members and also the mayor of Jersey, said this arrangement had been in place since Jersey first started to send its high school students to Social Circle High School before the creation of Zone 5 and he was glad to see it continue.
“This is how we’ve always done it and it’s how I think they would have wanted it to keep being done,” he said.
The June 30, 2021, deadline, if allowed to occur without amendment, would end the Zone 5 arrangement, sending hundreds of students into Walton schools from the SCCS district, but Kirby said that is not the only outcome.
“It can be renewed, as long as both systems agree to it,” Kirby said.
Callahan said that was precisely what the SCBOE was working to achieve and he had high hopes an extension could be reached.
“We’ve had preliminary discussions with the Walton County School District,” Callahan said. “They’ve gone very well. We’re pretty sure it will be extended.”
Robbie Hooker, the SCCS superintendent, said they hoped to have it taken care of long before next summer’s looming deadline.
“We hope to wrap it up by the end of the school year,” Hooker said.
In other board news, the board approved the purchase of two new school buses to replace two scrapped buses involved in a traffic accident back in February. The school system received a little more than $10,000 in insurance funds between the two totaled vehicles, which will make the final purchase price of the two buses $180,474. Board members said those funds would be taken from the Education Local Option Sales Tax fund.