Plans to consolidate Anniston's schools cannot proceed until federal approval is given, school board attorneys advised Thursday.
During the work session of the Anniston Board of Education, its attorneys said more information must be provided to the U.S. Department of Justice and that the agency needs to give its approval before consolidation efforts are carried out.
"My plan is to provide them with all the information that we have — the more they have, the more trust we give them," said attorney Burgin Kent. "It's better for everyone to get on board at the start."
Kent said he did not know how long it would take the Justice Department to make a decision.
The school board's goal is to begin consolidation in 2015 at the earliest.
The board has been mulling the idea of consolidation for more than a year. Board members have said consolidation is needed to save money due to decreases in enrollment. The proposed plan is to close Cobb Elementary and Constantine Elementary and then spread their students among the remaining schools.
The attorneys noted that the information needed to justify school consolidation could also help the school system prove it no longer requires federal oversight to comply with desegregation. Without oversight, the school system could approve projects faster, Anniston school officials say.
Under the terms spelled out in 1967 in the Lee v. Macon case, all public schools in Alabama were compelled to move ahead with desegregation and required to seek federal approval before undertaking any projects like school construction or consolidation.
Schools that have since met desegregation requirements are granted unitary status and no longer require federal approval on projects.
"All of this can help lead toward unitary status," Robin Andrews, school board attorney, said about the information needed to justify Anniston's school consolidation plans. "We're dealing with a lot of the same things, the same people at the Justice Department, employment, facilities, students and transportation."
The information would basically show there is little need to continue desegregation efforts because, due to demographic shifts in recent decades, 95 percent of Anniston's student population is black. Also, more than 50 percent of the school system's employees are black.
The attorneys also noted that it would still be up to the board on whether to seek unitary status.
After the meeting, Superintendent Darren Douthitt said having unitary status would help the school system move faster with projects, such as its current consolidation efforts.
"If we had unitary status, we wouldn't be having to go through all this," Douthitt said.
After the work session, the board entered into a regular meeting, where, incidentally, it approved the system's annual report to the Justice Department that shows it is meeting the requirements of Lee v. Macon.
Also during the meeting, the board passed a resolution supporting the city of Anniston's west Anniston master plan. The city approved the plan earlier this year, which lays out a strategy to revitalize west Anniston. The plan was developed through the collaboration of the city, the board, the Anniston Housing Authority and area residents.
"I'm somewhat elated ... the city, the school board and the housing authority is working together," said William Hutchings, board member. "That's something we've never had in this city and I feel like this west Anniston plan ... that something good will come out of it."
Staff writer Patrick McCreless: 256-235-3561. On Twitter @PMcCreless_Star.