The subject of consolidation of Hall County and Gainesville schools rarely comes up these days, although it has been discussed numerous times over the past few decades. There is no apparent groundswell of support for such a merger.
About the closest the two systems came to consolidation was in 1952 after a University of Georgia study addressed the feasibility. The study was commissioned by both Hall County and Gainesville school boards. It concluded that eventual merger of the systems would be a good thing.
What prompted the study was serious overcrowding at schools in both systems. There was a pressing need for more classrooms and other facilities in both systems. Several discussions of the study were held by the separate boards and joint meetings.
The study urged a merger with a single system to be governed by a nine-member board. The study authors felt like a single system could tackle the issues and provide the needed space more efficiently than two separate ones. The board would be elected and appoint a superintendent. C.J. Cheves was Gainesville superintendent at the time, and the Rev. H.G. Jarrard was county superintendent.
The study recommended consolidating some of the elementary schools and building four new high schools, including one that would cover Gainesville proper.
One of the sticking points seemed to be appointing a superintendent. At the time, the county school superintendent was elected, and the city superintendent appointed by the board. Some of the county school board members didn’t like the idea of an appointed superintendent, and it wasn’t until years later that the method of choosing a superintendent was changed. But there were other issues and opposition from people in the city and county that kept the boards from a final agreement.
A merger of the two systems, of course, didn’t happen, although it appeared for a while that they were headed that way. Other studies on merging the two systems have been conducted, but city and county school systems have been content to continue to be separate.
Instead of a city-county merger, the Rev. Jarrard led the board into a consolidation of county schools, combining such high schools as River Bend, Sardis, Airline, Lula, Clermont and others scattered around the county into three high schools: North, East and South Hall. South Hall later was renamed Johnson in honor of Robert Wood Johnson of Johnson & Johnson, Inc., who brought Chicopee Manufacturing Corp. to Hall County and who donated property for the South Hall campus. West Hall, Chestatee and Flowery Branch high schools came later.
The two boards did agree that black high school students would be educated in a single school, which eventually became E.E. Butler High School in the city system. Desegregation later caused black students to attend schools in the district where they lived, and Butler students were transferred to Gainesville High School.
One of the revelations that came out in the University of Georgia study was that only 36 of 100 white students who started school in Hall County and Gainesville systems earned a high school diploma. Among blacks, only three of 100 finished high school.
John Petty, a 1957 graduate of Gainesville High School, died a few days ago in Decatur. John was involved in some of the country’s most historic moments during his career in the Army and CIA. He received an appointment to West Point, and his senior year at the military academy marched in President John Kennedy’s inaugural parade.
After graduation from West Point, he became an infantry officer. As a first lieutenant in the 101st Airborne in 1962, John led a detachment of soldiers during the desegregation of the University of Mississippi.
A few weeks later, he was on standby in southern Florida ready to parachute into Cuba during the Cuban missile crisis. He never had to. John later left the military and joined the Central Intelligence Agency, training anti-communist forces in Laos. He also served at the American Embassy in Singapore.
After that, John moved back to Georgia and led various nonprofit organizations, including the Atlanta Enterprise Center, which helped the homeless train for and find jobs. One of his final efforts was to help secure a $250,000 grant just last month to assist homeless veterans in the Atlanta area.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times and can be reached at 2183 Pinetree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; phone, 770-532-2326. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.