Our Opinion: Will next year's valedictorians be Wilson County's last?

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They're a rare breed, our 2018 valedictorians and salutatorians from Beddingfield, Hunt and Fike high schools. 

Unfortunately, they're also a dying breed.

As it stands, these stellar students are the second-to-last bunch who will receive valedictory honors. Your Wilson County Board of Education chose last year to take those titles away starting in 2020. Unless the school board comes to its senses or voters choose to replace some recalcitrant members, Wilson will salute its last salutatorians and valedictorians next year.

The time-honored tradition of recognizing top-ranked graduates is under siege nationwide, a casualty of political correctness. School administrators have increasingly adopted collectivist philosophies that conflict with reserving high honors for the best and brightest individuals. They'd rather everyone receive a participation trophy than a select few earn gold medals. 

Enter the Latin honors system — the distinctions of cum laude, magna cum laude and summa cum laude already in use at the college and university level. Wilson County Schools is slated to add these honorifics to its commencement programs in 2020 as an alternative to naming vals and sals. 

There's nothing wrong with noting which students earned high grade-point averages, but recognizing graduates in three large batches is a poor substitute for honoring the true heads of the class. There's also no reason valedictory and Latin honors can't coexist. 

Some high schools do both. Why can't ours? 

School board members yanked the rug out from under future scholars on an apparent whim during a January 2017 meeting. They imposed their will by fiat, failing to seek input from students, parents and other stakeholders. We sounded the alarm, taking them to task in this space, but the passage of time has dulled public outrage and muted criticism to a murmur. 

Your elected officials cast the valedictory tradition as cutthroat, citing what some feel is an unhealthy emphasis on the two supreme honors among high-achieving students. Yet when it comes to school sports, board members still seem to believe competition builds character. They've yet to suggest referees stop keeping score.

Another argument centers on the small variances that separate vals from sals and sals from their peers clustered toward the top of the bell curve. An advantage of one-tenth or even a hundredth of a point could make the difference between giving a speech on stage and warming a seat with the rest of the class.

Ever heard of a photo finish? Every high school sprinter knows the margin between victory and defeat can be razor-thin. Likewise, football players know a two-point conversion in the waning seconds of the fourth quarter can hand the opponents a "W." Win-loss records don't differentiate between a blowout and a nailbiter.

The disconnect between the classroom and the locker room is jarring. Shouldn't our scholars be striving for No. 1 and learning how to win magnanimously and lose graciously along with our student-athletes? Declaring competition to be healthy in sports and toxic in academics teaches the wrong lesson. 

If all else fails, Wilson County can privatize the recognition of vals and sals. North Carolina law requires schools to record graduates' class rank on their transcripts, so there's no hiding the cold, hard truth about who's No. 1 and No. 2. A nonprofit group, foundation or booster club could hold a ceremony to celebrate these singular achievements and award scholarships to boot. Rest assured such an effort would receive ample coverage in the newspaper.

There's still time, however, for the school board to reverse course and restore valedictory honors to their rightful place of prominence. The switch isn't scheduled until 2020. And board members who rushed it through with no public input, a show of disrespect to their constituents, are up for re-election this November. 

Candidate filing begins Monday — just two days after graduation — and continues through July 6. Are incumbents content to hand prospective challengers a ready-made issue on which to campaign, or will they wisely walk back their disdain for recognizing individual achievement?

Class rankings, track meets and football games aren't the only contests that can be decided by a slim margin. Elections can be won and lost by one vote.