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‘We always knew Sandra was special’: Hall Schools breaks ground on Sandra Dunagan Deal Elementary
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Former Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal and family join in a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, at the construction site of the new Sandra Dunagan Deal Elementary School along White Sulphur Road. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hall County School District held a groundbreaking ceremony Wednesday, Nov. 16, for Sandra Dunagan Deal Elementary School, named after former Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, who died in August after a battle with breast cancer that metastasized to her brain. 

Sandra Deal was a Gainesville native and pillar of the Hall County community. Following in her parents’ footsteps, she taught in the district for 15 years at Tadmore Elementary, North Hall High School and North Hall Middle School. 

Her husband, former Gov. Nathan Deal, was in attendance, as were about half a dozen of Sandra’s childhood friends, some of whom had known her since second grade. 

Nathan Deal called the school a “great honor” for him, his late wife and his family. 

“She was a remarkable woman,” he said, his voice breaking. “She was a teacher in the truest and best sense of that word. Now, it’s hard to say enough about what she did for education in our state.” 

As first lady, Sandra Deal earned a reputation as a tireless advocate of children’s literacy, having read to more than 250,000 students at more than 1,000 schools in every Georgia school district. 

Sandra Dunagan Deal Elementary is the first of four new elementary schools planned in the district. The Hall County school board unanimously voted in September to name the school after Sandra Deal

“In general, I don’t believe in naming schools after people,” Superintendent Will Schofield said Wednesday. “Sandra is the outlier.” 

Over the summer, the board approved $41.8 million in funding for the school, which is scheduled to open in the fall of 2024. The 133,000-square-foot school will have 66 classrooms, and it will be able to hold up 1,025 students. It is located near the intersection of White Sulphur and Ramsey roads. 

It will replace White Sulphur Elementary and Riverbend Elementary, whose students will transfer to the new school. They will attend their usual middle schools upon graduating, with students zoned for White Sulphur attending East Hall Middle, and students zoned for Riverbend attending North Hall Middle. 

A couple students from Riverbend and White Sulphur shared their excitement about attending Sandra Deal Elementary when they become fifth graders. 

“I’m excited to meet new people and make new friendships,” said Andrew Smiley, a student at Riverbend Elementary. 

Craig Herrington, chairman of the school board, said he is “truly honored” to name the school after Sandra Deal and said she had a “special glow” whenever she interacted with children. 

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Former Governor Nathan Deal, left, is presented a plaque by Hall County Board of Education chairman Craig Herrington Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2022, at the construction site of the new Sandra Dunagan Deal Elementary School during a ground breaking ceremony for the new Hall County school. - photo by Scott Rogers

Board member Sam Chapman choked up before delivering the benediction. He previously told The Times that she taught his eldest son some 50 years ago when his son was a sixth grader at Tadmore Elementary. 

“We knew her before she was a Deal,” he said in September. 

Nathan Deal said the school symbolizes his wife’s contributions as a teacher, but, more importantly, it symbolizes the contributions of all teachers in Hall County. 

“This is a school that says teachers are important,” he said. “It has her name on it, but for all of you who are involved in education, it has your name on it as well.” 

Sandra Deal was admired for her “servant’s heart” and love of reading, but she was also known as a gifted political campaigner who proved the power of retail politics in Georgia

After winning the governorship in 2010, Nathan Deal said she turned to him and his staff and asked, “Well, now what am I supposed to do?” 

He confessed that he and his staff harbored some misgivings about letting her loose because they weren’t sure what she might say. They sent her to south Georgia, and the people there quickly “fell in love with her,” he said. 

“Finally, my staff recognized, ‘You don’t need to keep her quiet. You need to turn her loose and let her be the face of our administration,’” he said. “In fact, it was so obvious by the time we ran for reelection, we had some pins made up that said, ‘Reelect Sandra Deal First Lady.’ They were a hot item.” 

“We always knew Sandra was special,” Carole Wood Latty, who had been friends with Sandra since the second grade, said after the event. 

“She was first lady for eight years, but she was our friend for 65,” said Terra Wallace Manton, who met Sandra in ninth grade. 

“We walked to school every day,” said Gloria Stanley. “I’m just glad we were friends. We were friends from second grade on.” 

Nathan Deal relayed a story Stanley told him about Sandra making friends with homeless folks across the railroad tracks when she was a child living on Ridge Road in Gainesville. 

When she was an elementary student, he said, she would walk home every day for lunch, crossing over the railroad tracks. On the other side of the tracks, train-hoppers would camp out in the woods. 

“The remarkable thing about it was, all the hobos knew Sandra, and she talked to them,” he said. “She made friends with the hobos!” 

“That was her approach to life.”