Anniston Middle School is the unpopular stepchild of the city school system. Try as it might, its detractors attack it from all sides. Only rarely has it been free of controversy.
Today, the school represents Anniston’s future. The land it sits on is valuable retail real estate. The city has grand plans for it. Likewise, the children — Anniston’s sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders — are valuable, too. They deserve the best education the city and the state can provide.
None of this is new, mind you. Recall the 2000s, when the same troubles that festered around the school — odd location and too much space for too few students — during the 1990s roiled through the first decade of the 21st century. It’s Anniston’s version of Groundhog Day.
Nothing ever changes.
In 1997, Anniston Middle celebrated the 10th anniversary of its opening, though the party was hardly festive. State Superintendent Ed Richardson wrote to Anniston Mayor Gene Stedham that March, telling him that “it is our opinion that restructuring would provide better utilization of existing facilities and resources.” Richardson’s advice included shuttering the middle school.
As it is now, the logic then was solid. The student population of Anniston’s public schools had dropped 25 percent in the 10 years since Anniston Middle held its first class.
This is where today’s Board of Education, mayor and City Council should have a firm understanding of how vexing this middle-school question has been for the Model City. There are reasons why neither the board nor the council have been able to finalize any proposal to close the middle school. As the 1990s and 2000s prove, something always got in the way — financing, ward politics and weak, unsteady leadership.
Consider the year 1999. In a perfect world, Anniston would have solved its middle-school problem that fall. The stars, it seemed, had finally aligned.
That April, board members voted 3-2 to adopt a K-8 system that would close the middle school and reinstall neighborhood schools in Anniston. The hope was that by making these changes that the outflow of middle-class students of both races would stop, or at least be slowed to a manageable trickle.
That July, U.S. District Judge Lynwood Smith approved the plan. Anniston Middle’s fate was sealed.
A board review of the plan’s financing unveiled a $400,000 shortfall for building new classrooms at the remaining schools. The board voted again, and this time the 3-2 result stopped the plan dead in its tracks. A majority of board members couldn’t agree to saddle the system with nearly a half-million dollar deficit.
That left Anniston Middle’s opponents — particularly parents unhappy with the Alabama 21 location — back at square one. Anniston Middle “is too far,” Yrsa Craft, a parent of a student who lived in Golden Springs, told The Star. “You feel like if you can keep the school in the community, you feel a little more control. But if something happened at the middle school, it would take me half an hour just to get out there.”
On and on this charade went. In hindsight, it was a comical tour that enveloped Anniston’s neighborhoods, its white and black residents, its politicians and the federal courts. At one point, in April 2000, Bob Boshell, a consultant from the state Board of Education, proposed this radical plan: close Anniston High School, convert the middle school to a high school, convert Cobb Elementary back to a junior high and house K-6 classes in four elementary schools. The system’s office would move to the building that houses Tenth Street Elementary.
That didn’t happen. Neither did a June 2000 restructuring plan, which the board approved, that would close two elementary schools and middle school and have the seventh- and eighth-grade students temporarily transferred to the vocational school.
That was then.
The now, however, is hardly different. Anniston Middle School continues to teeter today on the precipice of closure. The previous school board reintroduced the close-the-middle-school idea to the city in April 2011 due to the continual decline of the system’s enrollment and state funding. That October, then-Councilman Herbert Palmore proposed building a new middle school so the city could develop the Alabama 21 site for retail near the northern end of Veterans Memorial Parkway.
Superintendent Joan Frazier handed the previous board — which had discussed the middle-school problem at length — a doable proposal that including closure and consolidation. The plan had merit. However, the board turned down Frazier’s recommendation just before the newly elected board members took office last November.
Which meant this never-ending dilemma with Annniston’s schools has been handled off to yet another set of decision-makers.
The choice is clear. Despite the financial and legal hurdles, Anniston’s schools must consolidate. Closing the middle school and allowing the city to develop that site is the smart move. Needed, however, are decision-makers with the fortitude to make it happen.
• Decisions delayed: The legacy of Anniston’s school choices
• A question unanswered: Anniston Middle School dilemma has long plagued the city
• The what-ifs of a school
• Wicked problem: What’s the real reason why Anniston hasn’t solved school issue?