Decisions delayed: The legacy of Anniston’s school choices
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Apr 16, 2013 | 4184 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston in the Middle - Second in an occasional series

Anniston housed its public junior high school at the former Cobb High for much of the 1970s and 1980s. It served its purpose. But critics of the one-time home of Anniston’s black high school building were many, vigorous and consistent.

Change, they said, was necessary.

Likewise, those criticisms were among several reasons behind the decision to build a new school for the system’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders north of downtown on Alabama 21. That school, Anniston Middle School, which the city’s Board of Education is considering closing, and whose property the city would like to develop for retailers, opened in the fall of 1987.

As for Cobb Junior High, its problems were immense. In 1980, a biracial committee set up by former Superintendent J.V. Sailors, Citizens Organized for Better Education, released a report on the city’s public school system. It was damning.

A few of the classrooms for the seventh- and eighth-graders had air-conditioning. Most used fans. “… None of the three heating systems is sufficient, there is no insulation, bathrooms are horrible, all three major buildings leak beyond repair, one gym needs a new floor, the boys locker room has deteriorated to the point it cannot be used for anything, the teachers lounge is beyond repair and there are few if any working water fountains,” the report read.

Thus, the stage was firmly set in 1980 that Anniston needed to upgrade its facilities for junior/middle-school students. The Cobb facility in west Anniston had deteriorated. Parents of Anniston’s white students who went to Cobb were particularly appalled at the facility’s condition. So, too, was Jack Owenby, an educational consultant from Tennessee who was hired to give the city a fresh set of eyes — and opinion — on the issue.

Owenby concurred with the COBE report. Cobb needed to be replaced.

But how?

Anniston Middle School today sits across from the former Fort McClellan because of a lengthy timeline of meetings, hearings, reports, polls and votes by the City Council and Board of Education. The school system has hemorrhaged students over the years; despite closing two elementary schools since Anniston Middle opened, the system still has too many classrooms and too many buildings (a high school, middle school and five elementary schools). Anniston, with a population hovering around 23,000, only has about 2,400 students due to the system’s slow-but-continual population decline.

What occurred in the 1980s was quintessential modern-day Anniston: much discussion, hand-wringing and debating — and few decisions. The racial divide in the city permeated many of this story’s elements. Where should a new junior high be built, in west (black) Anniston or east (white) Anniston? Whose elementary schools should be closed, those that are majority black or majority white? What can be done to stem the outflow of middle-class students of both races from the system?

Anniston in the Middle - View all articles in our series

Today’s decision-makers on the council and the school board should remember that their 1980s predecessors spent most of their time constructing plans that did not include a new school on Alabama 21. To the contrary, the discussions hinged on two questions: (1.) whether to use a K-8 system or a middle-school system; and (2.) if the middle-school option is selected, where to build the two middle schools.

As far back as 1978, black Annistonians polled by the University of Alabama had made it clear that a majority of them did not support a sales tax to build a new junior high in a “more central location” — a euphemism for somewhere other than in the west part of town. As such, these discussions weren’t without combativeness and emotion.

By 1981, ideas had cemented into proposals.

• Owenby, the consultant, believed the city should have two middle schools instead of one junior high at Cobb and zone the two middle schools on a north/south grid that would enable racial parity. COBE disagreed; its members preferred a “feeder” system under existing zones that would use two middle schools, one at (a newly built) Cobb and one at the Johnston Elementary.

In December 1981, the board adopted a two-school reorganization plan with north/south zoning to replace Cobb Junior High. The middle schools would be at the Cooper Elementary site and Johnston Elementary. A sales-tax increase would fund the plan.

The council, however, said no, on a 3-2 vote. A majority preferred a K-8 system and was opposed to the tax increase, and the Calhoun County Board of Education had unanimously voted to oppose any attempt to merge Anniston’s schools with the county’s.

• By May 1983, the saga of Anniston’s problem with Cobb Junior High had become a stagnant mess. That month, a poll commissioned by The Star showed where residents now stood: 52.5 percent of those polled supported a tax increase for a new junior high; 53.4 percent supported a site on Alabama 21. However, only 30 percent of blacks polled supported the idea of moving their students out of their traditional neighborhoods. (In 1983, the student populations of Anniston High and Cobb Junior High were about 65 percent black.)

The impasse was deep. The need was indisputable. Thus, Sailors, the then-superintendent, chose the Alabama 21 site as a compromise location for a new middle school that wasn’t in either predominantly white or black Anniston.

The board fired Sailors in December 1986, before the new school opened. The council refused to re-appoint several board members. And divisions that existed previously were given, in essence, an annual renewal as those opposed to the middle school on Alabama 21 have continually seen Sailors’ decision as a mistake.

Sailors, who moved to Tennessee in 1987 and became a nationally recognized educator, died in 2000.

Today, Anniston’s decision-makers are in largely the same position Sailors and other city leaders were more than 20 years ago. Consolidation of the Anniston system’s campuses is necessary, and closing the middle school remains a necessary, obvious move. If only those 1980s-era decisions had birthed more answers than questions.
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