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Gainesville school board will decide co-valedictorian issue Tuesday
Valerie Stephens, mother of Gainesville High School co-valedictorian Cody Stephens, speaks Monday night at the Gainesville City Schools board meeting. Stephens called for the firing of Gainesville principal Chris Mance over the issue of the school naming two valedictorians. The board will meet early next week to decide whether two students will share the honor. - photo by BRANDEE A. THOMAS

UPDATE: The Gainesville City Schools Board of Education has called a meeting for 6 p.m. Tuesday to discuss the issue of having two valedictorians. The meeting will be held at the school board office at 508 Oak St. NW, Gainesville.

The board will have an executive session, which is closed to the public, at noon Friday to discuss school records.

Previous story: Selecting a valedictorian should be pretty straightforward, but such a decision has left the Gainesville City Schools System in a gray area.

A formal discussion concerning the Gainesville High School valedictorian for 2012 wasn't on the agenda for the Gainesville City Schools Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening, but that didn't stop nearly a dozen people from taking up the issue during the "citizens' comments" portion of the meeting.

The issue has been a hot topic for the last few weeks after it was determined that the high school may have co-valedictorians this year since the two highest GPAs are separated by less than one-hundredth of a point. The name of one of the students hasn't been released, but the name of Cody Stephens - the other student - has become public due to the pushing of his supporters who say he shouldn't be required to share the title.

"By not recognizing (him) as the sole valedictorian of his senior class, the Gainesville City School administration has shamed this city, this community and most of all, Gainesville High School," said Valerie Stephens, Cody's mother and a GHS alumna.

"This is a clear issue of upholding what is right or doing what is wrong. The sad thing about this is that it is being done under the nose of the (school system) and they are allowing it to happen."

Other parents spoke out against the possibility of co-valedictorians.

"I am speaking as a concerned parent with a student at Gainesville High School. This could've been my son, so I step forward boldly and say I am shocked and concerned. As leaders, we need to do the right thing," said Andre Cheek, a Gainesville resident.

"It has already been stated that Cody has the highest GPA and that is the determining factor for the valedictorian of the senior class. If you're in a race and the person in front of you beats you by a tenth of a second or a one-hundredth of a second, it doesn't matter. Whoever comes in first is the winner of the race."

One speaker suggested that the community call for an investigation by the Georgia Department of Education to determine if student records have been altered to justify the need for sharing the honor.

After having met with Gainesville High leadership, Stephens recommended to the board that the principal, Chris Mance, be fired immediately. She says Mance's decision to have co-valedictorians isn't supported by board policies.

"Clearly, the leader of Gainesville High School is no longer capable to hold this position," Stephens said.

"Because of his decision, he is saying to every student that, ‘No matter how hard you work to achieve good grades, I have the power and authority to change the rules just because I prayed about it.'

"We need someone to teach our children that their hard work will be rewarded and hard work can not be split in half."

Although some people have said the decision to have co-valedictorians is racially motivated, others argued that the decision is bigger than race. It's about doing the right thing.

"The right thing is to do the math," said the Rev. Charles Dickey, a Gainesville resident.
"The highest GPA is what it is."

Although deciding on a valedictorian is a school-level process, the board has the authority to intervene, says Willie Mitchell, school board chairman.

"We have checked with our attorneys and we do have the power to overturn the decision," Mitchell said.
"The principal may not reverse his decision, but the board does have the power to overturn it."

The board is expected to state its position during a special called meeting on Monday or Tuesday. At that time, Mitchell says he will share with the public why he chose to support or oppose co-valedictorians, although the entire board is not required to do so.

"There are some things citizens expect us to do. If they can't get satisfaction at the school, quite naturally they would come to us," Mitchell said.
"I feel it's our obligation to say I'm for it, or I'm against it. Either way, we should let the citizens know."

Marcus Coleman, founder of the Atlanta Chapter of the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network said during the meeting that if a non-facts-based decision was handed down by the Board of Education, that there is a multicultural network of people ready to protest against the city.

A representative of the NAACP suggested that everyone involved in the process should resign if they don't make decision that is in the best interest of Gainesville youth.

Instead of its usual location at the Gainesville City Board of Education Office on Oak Street, the group met at Gainesville Exploration Academy on McEver Road in Gainesville.

The larger venue was chosen in part because of the multitude of students and staff members who were being recognized for their achievements, but also, Mitchell says, because the board anticipated a swell of supporters for Cody Stephens.

Before adjourning for a brief break, the board recognized a number of student achievers, including: the Gainesville Middle School reading bowl and basketball teams, Poetry Out Loud Winner Isaac Hopkins and Dream Art Contest winner Thuy-Hanh Tran.

During the meeting, the group also approved a fundraising request from Fair Street International Baccalaureate World School and granted permission for North Georgia Basketball Clinics to use the Gainesville High School gym. The board also approved acquiring a Computer Integrated Manufacturing Cell from Moultrie Technical College to be used by high school students in manufacturing classes.

The board will meet for its regular work session on March 5.