Double Dealing in Plains, Georgia

Black and white photo of building with imposing columns and trees in front

Ron Foust

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 7 No. 2, "Just Schools: A Special Report Commemorating the 25th Anniversary of the Brown Decision." Find more from that issue here.

Plains High School, the president’s alma mater, is—to use a favorite expression of candidate Jimmy Carter—a “national disgrace.”

The 50-year-old red brick schoolhouse is literally falling apart. Paint on the white columns flanking the entrance is peeling and dropping onto the landing below in large patches. The stone front steps are worn down and even the plastic doormat is in tatters. Inside, the unfinished wooden floorboards are cracked, broken and creaking. Paint and plaster are crumbling in the classrooms, clocks are broken, insulated electrical wires hang from holes in the ceiling. Many windows are missing panes, frames, shades or louvered shutters. Row upon row of auditorium chairs are in various states of decay and some are even uprooted from the floor. Bulletin boards are chopped up, classroom walls written on, and it is hard to find a single piece of furniture or equipment that isn’t chipped, nicked, broken, paint-splattered or in some way damaged. One instructor’s desk, in the typing room, has a separate padlock on every drawer. There is dirt and dust everywhere. The student restrooms, which are in a separate building, are a mess, with rickety wood stalls and exposed pipes. All the windows to the school’s ground-level crawl space are broken out or boarded up. There is a long crack in one of the exterior walls, and air and heating vents dangle from portals in the ceilings or walls or lie on the ground where they have fallen.

Yet this September more than 200 Sumter County children filed into the building, just as Jimmy Carter, the yearbook editor and valedictorian of the Class of ’41, did many years ago. An equal number of students trooped into Sumter County’s other public high school, Union, over in the nearby town of Leslie. Union High School is, if anything, in worse shape than Plains High. There pigeons roost on exposed rafters, subjecting the students below to the unpleasant and unhealthy fallout. For a time, an entire building was boarded up.

Understandably, none of the four tours which circulate in and around the town of Plains gives visitors more than a distant, passing look at the high school building. There is a fence surrounding the grounds and a sign on the driveway gate which forbids entry to any but those with school business, even on weekends and during vacations.

“The whole thing is race,” says Diane Barfield, Plains High School Class of 1963, and now a member of the Sumter County School Board. The population of the county is just under 50 percent black, but the comparatively high black birth rate, combined with white flight from the public schools in the wake of integration, has pushed the proportion of black children in the school system to more than 75 percent.

“It took me a long while to figure out what was going on,” says the farmer’s daughter who once belonged to a church circle with Rosalyn Carter. “I suppose I was naïve, listening to all that talk about the expense of consolidation. I didn’t realize that the race thing was the overriding issue.”

In February, 1976, at the request of local school officials, the Georgia Department of Education sent a comprehensive study team to look into the condition of public schools in Sumter County. Their findings echoed those of a similar study undertaken in May, 1971: 

The committee feels that immediate attention must be given to the physical facilities and instructional program at Union High School and Plains High School…. The age, physical condition and size of the two high schools makes these plants unacceptable when measured by any standards generally applied to determine the acceptability of Georgia High School plants.

The committee recommended that the two high schools be abandoned and that a new, consolidated high school be built in its place. One member of the team went so far as to observe that the two buildings were among the five worst still standing in the state of Georgia. “The study committee strongly recommends,” said the report, “that the Sumter County Board of Education and school officials make every effort to remedy the situation as soon as possible.” 

However, without taking issue directly with these findings, a majority of the board decided they preferred renovation, including the construction of modular facilities, saying they “didn’t want to take the school out of the community.” Diane Barfield pushed for consolidation. “Any fool can see they can’t renovate that building. And it’s not a community school anymore, anyway.” While admitting that even when she was a student there Plains High was a bit frayed around the edges, Mrs. Barfield maintains that Plains was “kept up much better than it is now,” and that Plains and Union “are in the worst shape they’ve ever been in.”

Whatever his other shortcomings, the president was Jimmy-on-the-spot in the matter of school consolidation in Sumter County. In Why Not the Best? he recalled how in the 1950s he joined the school board—as had his father before him—and drew up a “major consolidation program” almost identical to the one recommended by the state board of education report in 1976. Carter, as chairman of the board, campaigned hard for the bond issue throughout the county in what he called “my first real venture into election politics.” Nevertheless, the measure was defeated by 88 votes county-wide, and overwhelmingly in Plains, “a stinging disappointment” for the future president. 

And, unlike some of his more recent positions, Carter’s support for the consolidation concept has been clear and unwavering for more than 20 years. He and Rosalyn both sent taped messages of support for broadcast in March, 1977, when a similar bond issue was defeated, this time by 186 votes. Almost the entire Carter clan was mobilized in the 1977 bond fight, including Miz Lillian (who maintains that the 1950s bond defeat was the turning point in her son’s choice of politics as a vocation) and Brother Billy—both of whom contributed their money as well as their votes in the effort—and Cousin Hugh, the state senator.

The fight over school consolidation even predates the infamous dispute surrounding the Plains Baptist Church, and many in the town insist that the school dispute is more intractable and more deep-seated, although the underlying issue is identical.

When real, rather than token, integration came to Sumter County Schools in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Mrs. Barfield took her young children out of the public schools like a lot of concerned white parents. But as she saw the change working, she returned them, and is now the only member of the seven-person school board with any children in the public schools.

This summer, sitting on the front porch of “the first Carter house” in Plains, a tourist attraction where she now works, Mrs. Barfield explained why she removed her children from the all-white private system. “We saw right away that that wasn’t the answer, so we decided to come back and fight, “ she says, fanning away a swarm of gnats.

Billy Carter, who graduated 25th out of a class of 26 in Plains High School’s class of 1955 (the year his older brother joined the school board), came to the same conclusions about the schools in much the same fashion as Diane Barfield. He took his children out of public school when integration came, but several years later put them back in, dissatisfied with the kind of education they were getting at in the newly established, all-white Southland Academy. His daughter, he told a Georgia reporter at the time, “learned absolutely nothing at Southland. She made straight A’s there and almost failed the next year at Plains.” There was also a social cost to the move, said the pugnacious younger brother, since “in certain areas you are just a damn nigger-lover if your kids go to the public schools.”

The reactions of Diane Barfield and Billy Carter were not atypical, as Jimmy Carter recalled the phenomenon in Why Not the Best?:

The early expressed commitments to close all our public schools…rather than integrate began to wane when the consequences of uneducated children began to be seriously assessed. A common and independent decision was made by hundreds of white school board members to yield to federal court orders. Private schools absorbed the children of unyielding parents. Perhaps these private schools were not without value in a difficult time, serving in a way as community safety valves….As was the case in many states, a hodgepodge of education laws had evolved over the years, and this situation had been aggravated by the futile attempts to contrive laws which would circumvent the federal court rulings on racial integration.

The reaction of the Sumter County School Board was equally classic; the county’s one black high school, Central, was turned into a junior high school, and black coaches, principals, and teachers were fired or demoted. Several public school buildings were declared “surplus” and sold at outrageously low prices to newly established, all-white private schools, thus maintaining their previous racial character. (In a particularly egregious example—widely practiced in the South during this period—a “surplus” school was sold to a private system, which used it only long enough to construct a new building, whereupon it was leased back to Sumter County for public use for two years at an exorbitant rent, and finally sold back to the county for a profit. The entire transaction was engineered by the attorney who represented both the public and private systems.) Public school buses were painted over with the private school names, while supplies and equipment vanished from the public schools, only to pop up in private ones. Members of the Sumter County School Board incorporated a new private system, with the help of the board attorney, and, with administrators and teachers in the public schools, began moving their own children into it. Black and younger white teachers and administrators who tried to make integration work were fired or forced out. In an attempt to fool the courts and HEW, for example, a black janitress was listed as a teacher, since she was called on to substitute when other teachers were ill.

These blatant shenanigans resulted in at least one cutoff of federal funding and provoked the smoldering outrage of Sumter County residents, especially those named Carter. Jimmy, who had served on a special education task force while in the legislature and was by then governor, proposed a law that would have prohibited anyone who was an incorporator, employee or patron of a private school system from serving on a public school board or teaching in the public schools. He also had the state join in suits aimed specifically at the Sumter board and it members.

Both Billy and Miz Lillian involved themselves in an unsuccessful petition drive to recall certain members of the board and a successful lawsuit designed to change the means of choosing board members from appointment by the grand jury to election. They subsequently supported a steady stream of insurgent school board candidates which climaxed in the election of Diane Barfield. At a highly charged gathering in 1972 at the Sumter County courthouse, Billy Carter told a packed meeting that he would crawl on his hands and knees with his children on his back to wherever a new, consolidated high school would be built.

With full-fledged, court-ordered desegregation—and the increasing percentage of black enrollment which followed it—came a more subtle strategy on the part of the board: they gradually turned off the tap of public funds to the school system. Over a 10-year period, the property tax rate dropped from almost 20 mills to 7.5 mills, so that y 1976 the Georgia Department of Education committee report noted that “Sumter County has one of the lowest millage rates for maintenance and operation in the state.”

In addition, by rejecting requests for such much-needed “frills” as a new heating system, new showers, new textbooks, an air conditioner for the library at Plains and the repair of broken windows—not to mention salary increases for teachers—the county erased its total bonded indebtedness and accumulated a surplus in excess of $200,000. It was only after an inquiry from the state department of education asked pointedly whether the board was in the banking business or the education business that the surplus ceased growing.

This kind of fiscal foot-dragging and bureaucratic sabotage is called “underfunding,” and the practice is by no means confined to Sumter County or the state of Georgia. “There’s no question but that a serious problem exists,” says Robert Doctor, Southern Field Office Director of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Civil Rights from his office in Atlanta. ”We have traveled from state to state,” he says, noting “the profound effect on the public system” that underfunding has had. The major problem his office has in pinpointing and documenting cases of underfunding is that “we don’t have the resources to do that kind of work.”

One group that has found the resources is the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, of Washington, D.C. The group’s School Finance Project, in cooperation with the American Friends Service Committee office in Columbia, SC, produced a case study of underfunding in the state of South Carolina. The 101-page document, which took nearly a year to compile, makes use of sophisticated computer analysis and is illustrated with numerous graphs and tables. The conclusions are simple, stark, and unambiguous. The report showed:

a strong relationship between the racial composition of a school district and district support of the public schools. It further supports the proposition that desegregation of the public schools had a significant influence on the financial decisions of local fiscal authorities. Its apparent effect was to reduce the level of local support in districts where the racial composition of the student body was majority-black.

Specifically, the report listed four of “its more important findings”:

1. In the most recent school year, tax rates in predominantly black school districts were, on average, substantially lower than tax rates in predominantly white school districts.

2. Over the past decade, tax rates in predominantly black school districts have fallen increasingly behind those in predominantly white districts.

3. Lower tax rates, combined with lower average levels of property wealth, have produced lower levels of local revenues in predominantly black districts than in all other districts in the state.

4. The system of state aid presently in existence, which distributes approximately equal dollars per pupil, does nothing to overcome revenue disparities, which are locally based.

According to research director Joel D. Sherman, South Carolina was selected for study because it appeared to be the best example of underfunding, and “was not specifically prepared in connection with litigation.” Similar studies are now in the works for Louisiana and Alabama.

For many Sumter County residents, the school bond referendum was the last straw. In addition to the critical report of the state board of education, parents faced the problem of students who tested at least two years below grade level and had a dropout rate of 45 percent, twice what it was when Jimmy Carter was a student. Although some activists maintained that a combination of available state and federal grants—added to the newly enhanced value of the land on which Plains High School is located—made a bond issue to finance the new consolidated high school unnecessary, the board went ahead with the $4 million referendum anyway. Two nights before the vote, school board member James Gaston, a farmer and former private school teacher, went on the radio and with another member urged people to vote against it.

“I did oppose it,” he recalled. “It was impractical. There are a number of citizens in the area who feel small schools can provide top quality education….It’s the only system in Georgia to graduate a president of the United States, so it must be pretty good.”

“I feel certain that if we had a united board this thing would have passed,” says Mrs. Barfield.

And so, when the referendum was defeated by 186 votes, Gaston and other conservatives on the board cited this as yet another repudiation of the consolidation concept, dating back to the 1950s. However, acknowledging the need to do something in light of the state board of education report, the Sumter board let bids for an architect to design modular additions to Plains and Union High Schools. This prompted a coalition of black and liberal white parents, with the support of a black state legislator from a nearby district, to file suit to block the construction. They chose as their attorney Millard Fuller, a tall, gangly, Americus, Georgia, lawyer who made a fortune in the mail order business in his youth and later gave it all away to join the local Christian community of Koinonia. “They don’t want a good public school system,” he says of the school board majority. “They want a lousy system.”

At one of the superior court hearings which ensued, Fuller again made the point that none of the majority sent their children to the public schools and that the system superintendent had his own children in a private school. This caused presiding Judge W.E. Blank to offer his “particular idea” of that situation:

I’m interested in what the School Board thinks about the public school system….Just to be candid about it, I think if a person is not interested in the growth and development of the public school system he ought not to be sitting on the Board. Now, I wouldn’t say that I would necessarily support the public school system….But, if I was not in sympathy with the growth and development of the public school system, as a matter of conscience. I wouldn’t sit on it. I think I would stand aside and let somebody who was vitally interested in it.

Board member James Gaston did subsequently step aside, and in the Democratic primary on August 8, 1978, two insurgent candidates supported by the Sumter County Organization for Public Education (SCOPE), which had supported the 1977 bond issue, ran for a pair of open seats. Both Ron Foust, a white member of Koinonia, and Eugene Cooper, a black minister and insurance man, had run earlier and had been defeated by other incumbents on the heretofore all-white board. They campaigned as a team, criticizing their opponents for dragging their heels on the new high school and sending their children to private schools. Supporters of Foust’s opponent, Dan Parker, responded with a last-minute newspaper advertisement which stated simply that his “opponent in this race is Ron Foust, who lives and works at KOINONIA FARMS,” capitalizing on long-running area hostility to the Christian community where racial and economic equality have been fundamental tenets since its inception.

Despite the large percentage of blacks in Sumter County, and the spirited campaign, Foust and Cooper lost by more than 300 votes, a narrower margin than their last outings, but almost twice the margin that defeated the bond issue a year before. “Some people still believe that black people’s ballots are taken from the box and stuffed in a garbage can,” said Eugene Cooper.

Race and money are central to the school dispute in Sumter County and elsewhere in the South, but in this year of Proposition 13, teacher strikes and declining student enrollments across the country, it is important to note that these two factors alone do not tell the whole story. An equalization act on the books in Georgia (as in other states) provides some state subsidy for systems like Sumter County. But in the Americus city district, which is independent of the county and where the racial ratio is almost identical to that of the county, the annual per pupil expenditure is actually less—$166 in the city, compared to $371 in the county. Yet in Americus, the attitude of the board and the administrative personnel and the general atmosphere is so far superior that parents of more than 300 county children (including two of Diane Barfield’s) pay to attend the city public schools. While the public school system is even worse in adjoining Terrell County, consolidated and regional high schools are functioning infinitely better in neighboring Lee County, which has a lengthy reputation for hostile relations between the races, ranging from lynchings to physical opposition to the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Ever since the election of Jimmy Carter, the microscope of the national and international media has been focused on Sumter County, examining almost every aspect of life in the area, from the superficial “decline and loss of innocence in Plains” variety to the more serious studies of housing and urban decay appearing in the New Republic and Wall Street Journal. Since the president has made his home and upbringing such a central part of all of his political campaigns, this seems fair commentary. But it nonetheless adds to the burden of those who remain behind. People like Diane Barfield, who joined Miz Lillian and Cousin Hugh and others in fighting the good fight (that Jimmy was also once a part of) over Plains Baptist Church, culminating in the establishment of the Maranatha congregation, which admits members of all races to worship. Now she carries the standard for school consolidation on the school board. “Sometimes,” she says with a weary smile and sigh, “I wish I could just close my eyes again, and not see what I have seen and not know what I now know. It seemed much simpler before.”