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The League of Women Voters of the Dalton Area will push to merge the North Georgia city and Whitfield County school systems, though Dalton education officials say that would be a step in the wrong direction.

Helen Crawford, president of the local league, said Tuesday the members of her group will collect signatures this year to put a referendum on the May 2018 ballot. The referendum would ask voters if they want to eliminate the city's school charter. In doing so, the Whitfield County school system would take over students now covered by the city school system.

The petitioners would need about 3,000 signatures by Dec. 27, said Jevin Jensen, one of the advocates for merging the two school systems. A majority vote in favor of consolidation would put pressure on the city to eliminate that wing of the government.

In the 2015-16 academic year, according to the Georgia Department of Education, Whitfield County Schools worked with 14,136 students. Dalton Public Schools, meanwhile, had a student population of 8,210.

Dr. Richard Fromm, chairman of the Dalton Board of Education, criticized the league's effort, saying only a small group of residents think they can solve deep problems through a simple vote. He doesn't believe one big system would help at-risk students learn better, and he doesn't think it would actually save taxpayers any money.

"I don't find a compelling reason to do it," he said. "Those who want to do it ought to defend it with empirical data."

Said Don Amonett, Dalton Public Schools' interim superintendent, "I would be very disappointed if it happened. ... It's not in the best interest of the community or the schools."

Both Amonett and Fromm said outside groups solicited studies in the late 1990s, looking at whether consolidating the schools made sense. Amonett, a 41-year veteran of the school system, said five different studies showed taxpayers would not actually save money. While they could eliminate some positions — such as going from two superintendents to one — they would need additional support staff in the central office to oversee the bulkier system.

Fromm added that one larger education body would not necessarily help the city's students who come from poverty or homes where the parents do not speak English. He said smaller systems can adapt quicker and react to trends better.

According to the Georgia Department of Education, 68 percent of Dalton Public Schools' students are Latino, and 80 percent are economically disadvantaged. By comparison, 40 percent of Whitfield County students are Latino, and 73 percent are economically disadvantaged.

Whitfield County Schools Superintendent Judy Gilreath said she doesn't necessarily have a position on the consolidation effort. But like her counterpart in the city system, she doesn't believe merging the two would save money.

"I'm here to educate children," she said. "That's a community decision. If they're talking about something as seriously as Dalton giving up their schools, the majority of voters need to decide."

Cathy Holmes, who led a league meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss a potential merger, said the change would help recruit more talent to the system. In particular, she said, a high-profile superintendent candidate could more easily be recruited to a bigger school system.

She believes students then could perform better, though some achievement measures don't show a dramatic difference between the two systems. According to the Georgia Department of Education's end-of-grade assessments, about 67 percent of Whitfield County students performed at "beginning" or "developing" levels, the lower half of four achievement categories. About 63 percent of students scored in those categories in math.

By comparison, about 71 percent of Dalton Public Schools' children ranked in those categories for English, and another 71 percent of them did so for math.

"I believe in the kids," Holmes said. "You just have to have higher expectations across the board."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.

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