Anniston school consolidation issue awaits new board members
by Laura Camper
lcamper@annistonstar.com
Sep 17, 2012 | 5350 views |  0 comments | 13 13 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Anniston Middle School students board their buses after school last week. A decision on what to do with the middle school property may be left up to the new Anniston school board in November. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
Anniston Middle School students board their buses after school last week. A decision on what to do with the middle school property may be left up to the new Anniston school board in November. (Anniston Star photo by Stephen Gross)
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Opened 25 years ago on a site some said was too far from most of the children it served, Anniston Middle School now sits on coveted land.

Overlooking the intersection of Summerall Gate Road and Alabama 21 North — up the road from the northern terminus of Veterans Memorial Parkway, Anniston’s link to Interstate 20 — the property is now being viewed by city officials as a possible retail development mecca.

Anniston Board of Education members recognize the importance of the potential sales tax dollars to the city’s budget. They are excited to have the opportunity to help, said board of education member Bill Robison. However, the members are hampered by funding and federal regulations, he added.

He believes it will take two years to implement any plan the board eventually approves because everything has to be approved by the federal courts before it can be put into action. In addition, funding is key.

“We’re not trading apples for apples,” Robison said. “This is what we must do to vacate the middle school and if we don’t get that amount of money, then we can’t do it.”

Superintendent Joan Frazier made what she called a “very preliminary guesstimate” that it will take a minimum of $15 to $18 million to do the renovations and construction necessary for the school system to be able to vacate the middle school.

Board president Mary Harrington said she believes that is workable. The system will be debt-free after this school year and the city passed a 1-cent sales tax that it said would be used in part to help fund the schools.

“That’s not unreasonable, if the people are serious,” Harrington said.

The board is still in discussions about exactly how to reorganize. But one thing the board members agree on — the school system has too many facilities. With five elementary schools, the enrollment is well under capacity at some schools. In addition, the middle school is at about half capacity with the central offices taking up part of the building.

The board members agree the system needs to consolidate its facilities and have reached a consensus that they want to move the sixth-graders from the middle school back to the elementary schools. However, they still haven’t decided how many elementary schools — three or four — that plan should encompass.

Harrington, who will be leaving her seat in November, said she would like to see the system close two elementary schools.

“It costs the same to close one as to close two,” Harrington said, adding she doesn’t want to see the board have to revisit the issue of school consolidations again in a few years.

The property transfer would also mean building a new middle school for the seventh- and eighth-grade students and finding a new home for the central offices. The board members have not made a decision yet on where that middle school will be, but Frazier and Robison said they were leaning toward constructing a new building on the grounds of the high school. With some renovations, the central offices could also move to the high school grounds in a building on the corner of Woodstock Avenue and 11th Street.

Transferring the middle school property to the city is a proposal brought to the school system last October by Councilman Herbert Palmore. Board members find the proposal attractive because it would help finance a more efficient school system. But it also may be a way to get some of the upgrades in technology they want for the students.

Board member Arthur Cottingham said he sees the agreement as an opportunity for the school system to make sure the remaining schools are brought up to 21st-century standards of technology as well as to modify the schools in whatever way necessary to serve the sixth-graders as they move to the elementary schools.

“We didn’t go to them,” Cottingham said. “They came to us.”

But one thing complicating the decision is the change of board members in November. While current board members have been working on this for about a year, the new members coming on may not be completely up to speed on the case.

C.K. Huguley, one of the new board members, said she only recently received information about the issue and hadn’t been able to look at it yet.

Still, Cottingham, one of the outgoing members of the board, said he’s not going to push to make a decision before he vacates his seat, even though he thinks it will slow down the decision if it’s not made before November.

“It’s not anything that I have a personal goal to have done,” Cottingham said. “If we have a recommendation, we’ll make a decision.”

Frazier agreed.

“I’m trying to kind of let things proceed naturally,” Frazier said.

What Frazier doesn’t want is to have the current board make a decision and then the new board members decide to revisit the decision when they take their seats, she said.

Harrington is not worried about making the decision before she leaves the board, she said. The new board will get the same information that they have been gathering for a year, she said.

“It is my hope that we will do what we have prepared the people for,” Harrington said.

Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.
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