DALTON, Ga.-In an abrupt reversal, local leaders and attorneys now say a government merger of Dalton and Whitfield County directly would affect the county's two school systems.
That's radically different from information provided since consolidation discussions became serious about a month ago. Leaders had believed that the city and county school systems could remain separate even if the governments merged.
But Dalton school attorney Henry Tharpe said Friday a merger would repeal Dalton's charter, which then likely would repeal the city schools' charter.
The news seemed to stun members of the Dalton Board of Education.
"All these years, I've been led to believe there is no connection between the city of Dalton and Dalton city schools," Chairman Steve Williams said, shaking his head. "This is a brand new world - we're trying to get our arms around this new reality. We want to protect the Dalton public schools; we believe it is a valuable asset to the community."
Government leaders decided at a February retreat to explore the idea of consolidation. The city and county since have passed resolutions asking state legislators to authorize a study commission.
Leaders at the retreat were told no prior Georgia consolidation had included a city school system and that it was possible the city schools could remain if they were independent of the city.
But Tharpe said he found several cases in state case law indicating the school charter would dissolve and default to the county, calling the situation "uncharted territory."
State legislation passed in 1910 created the Dalton schools, Tharpe said. In 1945, legislators amended the state Constitution so no more independent school systems could be created. That means if the charter is repealed, Dalton could not create a new school system.
School board members asked Tharpe to look at options and present them at the March 14 board meeting.
"Whatever we do, we have to make sure it doesn't run afoul of the constitutional provision and is something the community wants," Tharpe said. "We don't want to spend time and resources and have it overturned in a lawsuit."
City and county voters must approve consolidation, and officials were hoping to place a referendum on the November 2012 ballot.
Dalton Mayor David Pennington, who has pushed government and school consolidation, said he believes the schools have three options.
They can do nothing. If the 2012 referendum fails, nothing will change. If the referendum passes, city schools will be absorbed into the county.
Or they can create a new, unified school system, he said.
Williams said he supports exploring different options.
"We can't just sit back and ignore the possibility (of losing the charter)," he said.