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Johnny Vardeman: Gainesville school system survived after years of debate
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Seeds for a “free” public school system for Gainesville were sown as far back as the 1870s, but two decades of debate followed, and in the end citizens were faced with a choice between providing education or sewers.

They eventually decided on both, but the school system was birthed only after lengthy labor pains and opposition from some of the leading citizens of the time.

James E. Dorsey’s “The History of Hall County, Vol. 1” credits J.B. Estes with the first recorded proposal for free education for Gainesville’s children. His idea would cause a tax increase, and citizens shot it down.

City government already was at arm’s length to education with what was known as Gainesville College, sometimes even referred to as Gainesville High School. The city had bought a building in 1874 and leased it to private operators as a school. Students had to pay tuition to attend.

The idea of a city-sponsored school system didn’t die, however, and persisted in the following years. Two more votes for free schools failed, and a study committee recommended against the proposal because of the presence of private schools and the certainty of a tax increase. The committee said after a first-year cost of $6,000, the annual operating cost would be $5,000, a sum that wasn’t available without a tax increase.

After a regular turnover of presidents of Gainesville College, it closed in early 1892. That led to another vote for a public school system, this time citizens voting in favor. The city council then created the Gainesville School System and a board of education to oversee it.

R.E. Park became the city’s first school superintendent and principal and went on to become a prominent professor at the University of Georgia.

While the public schools for both whites and blacks operated for three years with some success, there remained opposition to them. Some wanted to close the schools and use the money instead to install a sewer system.

There were the usual complaints about the teachers, curriculum and administration, but the main argument was that public schools had not been a boost to economic activity that had been promised. In the 1890s, many houses in Gainesville stood vacant, and rental housing owners claimed rents were too low. They had believed the school system would increase population, thereby filling the vacant houses and increasing rental rates.

Even A.W. Van Hoose and Hayward Pearce, who would operate Brenau College, were opposed to public schools, saying it was the parents’ responsibility to educate their children, not government. H.H. Dean, a powerful citizen who would become mayor, said the free schools were failing, and future Georgia governor A.D. Candler wanted a sewer system, not a school system. S.C. Dunlap, a prominent lawyer, likewise wanted the public schools to close.

J.B. Estes, who years earlier first suggested free schools, called the existing system inefficient and no benefit to the city. He now regretted the closing of private schools and supported a sewer system that would stimulate economic development.

However, heavyweights weighed in on the other side, too. Mayor John Smith came out in favor of public schools and against “the trifling little sewer line.” H.H. Perry, prominent lawyer and politician, said it would be a step backward to abolish city schools, and such a system increased property values.

J.A. Gaston, who also would serve as mayor, said many children could not afford private schools because of the tuition, and a public school system would give every child in Gainesville an opportunity for an education.

Perhaps D.S. Craig understood best the reason and need for free schools in words that are just as pertinent today: “I am in favor of public schools. In them are educated children of a class of people who otherwise are unable to incur the expenses incident to furnishing an education. Society and civilization are thus advanced, and the taxpayers are more than fully repaid.”

A change in leadership, especially bringing in as superintendent J.W. Marion, seemed to stabilize the schools, and the attitude toward them changed.

Despite the sometimes contentious debate, the school system survived, and the city installed sewers, too.

The city school system is approaching its 125th anniversary with almost 8,000 students. When it began in 1892, enrollment was 450.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times.