The Anniston City Council informed the school board last week that it will not purchase the Anniston Middle School property for retail development — a plan first proposed by the previous city council. Anniston officials say an estimated $6 million cost just for the site and its development would be too high and that retail development could be achieved faster and cheaper on city-owned property near the school. Meanwhile, school board members say that without a need to close the middle school, they must come up with a new cost-savings plan to consolidate a system that has too many facilities for too few students.
"We haven't met as a board to discuss it yet, but there is no reason to close it now," Donna Ross, president of the school board, said of the middle school. "We need to look at reorganizing our elementary schools."
Enrollment in Anniston's five elementary schools is declining. When the board began discussions a year ago to sell the middle school to the city for possible retail development, it also struck plans to consolidate the school system to save money. In May, the board voted to close the middle school, sell it, and use the money to convert Cobb Elementary School into a junior high school, sending all sixth-graders to the remaining four elementary schools.
The city began looking at the middle school property for possible retail development due to its location near the Veterans Memorial Parkway. Once completed in 2015, the parkway will bring increased traffic to the area.
However, after taking a closer look at the middle school site, City Manager Brian Johnson, hired in August, recommended to the council that the property was too expensive and should not be purchased. Johnson estimated it would cost the city at least $6 million just to purchase the property, demolish the school and clear the site for a developer. Johnson said the board also had expected the council to help pay for the renovations of Cobb, but had never provided a concrete figure — throwing an unknown cost variable into the mix.
"The overarching theme here is this is a business decision and has nothing to do with education," Johnson said Friday. "The mayor's commitment to education is beyond reproach."
Mayor Vaughn Stewart said Anniston has quicker and cheaper opportunities for retail development near the parkway, noting the city owns 25 acres on Alabama 21 just north of the middle school. It would take minimal work to prepare the site for a developer, Stewart said.
He added that about 30 acres of property on the east side of Alabama 21 owned by the McClellan Development Authority was available for retail development. The MDA manages development of the former fort.
"Developable property can get developers in quicker than on the middle school site," Stewart said. "And the traffic count there is just tremendous."
According to the latest Alabama Department of Transportation statistics, a traffic counter on Alabama 21 at Summerall Gate Road near the middle school averaged 32,317 trips per day in 2011. In comparison, a traffic counter on Interstate 20 near the Oxford Exchange averaged 37,810 trips a day in 2011.
Back to the drawing board
Anniston schools Superintendent Joan Frazier said the board of education will have a chance to discuss its reorganization plans at a Jan. 17 meeting.
"I'm going to presume at the next meeting, this will be a topic of discussion," Frazier said.
Ross said she was not upset about the city's decision.
"If they don't have the money to buy something, that's totally OK with me," Ross said.
Board member Mary Klinefelter also said the city's decision did not upset her, adding that she only agreed to close the middle school because it might have helped with economic development.
"I was never in favor of closing the middle school, just accommodating the city," Klinefelter said. "The middle school is a good school that we're very fortunate to have."
Klinefelter agreed with Ross that with sale of the middle school off the table, the board needs to revisit its system reorganization plan.
Board member William Hutchings suggested the city's decision indicated a lack of support for the school system.
"I think it's wrong what they've done," Hutchings said. "They've never given to the school system what others have given to their school systems."
Hutchings said the board will now need to look at closing one or two of the city's elementary schools, identifying Cobb and Tenth Street Elementary as prime candidates because they have the lowest student enrollment.
Board member Bill Robison, a former mayor of Anniston, said he understood the city's decision, given the costs involved. Robison said the board will still need to come up with another consolidation plan that does not involve closing the middle school.
"We have five elementary schools and not enough students to justify having five elementary schools," Robison said. "But I don't think it's practical to think that the middle school facility will not be out there because it would be too expensive now to expand or build elsewhere."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.