Board President Donna Ross expressed misgivings about locating the middle school at the site of Cobb Elementary School, yet even as she did, board member William Hutchings repeatedly interrupted her, forcing board member C.K. Huguley had to step in to enable Ross to finish her points.
Eventually Superintendent Joan Frazier had to tell Hutchings that he had a habit of interrupting people.
Continuing to make her case, Ross said the system might be able to reduce costs if it places the junior high at the high school campus, saving money on certain facilities and giving middle school students more opportunities to take career technology classes.
In May the board voted to close the middle school and convert Cobb Elementary School into a junior high school for seventh- and eighth-graders, sending the sixth-graders back to the remaining four elementary schools. Ross told her colleagues she believed she made a mistake voting for that plan at the time, concerned as she was more with moving forward by consensus than with considering the academic implications.
Hutchings, who represents the neighborhood where Cobb is located, has been a proponent of putting the junior high school on the west side of Anniston as part of an effort to revitalize the neighborhood.
“I thought it was feasible to go to Cobb,” he said, noting potential for the Anniston Housing Authority to renovate or replace the nearby Cooper Homes. “My thought was to beautify west Anniston… If you build something, put something there, the people gonna come.”
Board member Mary Klinefelter told Ross she’s not OK with putting junior high students with older students at the high school because they would be susceptible to bullying. She said it would be difficult to keep the two groups totally separated on campus.
Ross also said she’d heard some concerns from the parents about locating the middle school at Cobb. She said if the goal is to attract more students back to the school, putting it in an area that parents are leaving might not be the ideal plan.
In response, Klinefelter recalled the arguments of a generation ago, when a previous school board faced a similar question in the early 1980s.
“That was the exact hope of building Anniston Middle School where it is now,” she said. “And we can all see what happened with that. It was neutral ground and it would attract all of our children back into Anniston Middle School, but I don’t think that’s happened.”
Thrown into the location question was also the renovate vs. build question. After the vote in May, discussions with staff and the architect led to some board members considering tearing down the existing Cobb building and starting from scratch, a move that architect Seawell McKee said would only change the construction costs by about $265,000. While this has been discussed, the board has never voted to build a new school from scratch, something board member Bill Robison frequently reminds his colleagues of.
Frazier said that if there’s going to be a change in the Cobb renovation plan, the board members will have to formally rescind the plan they’ve approved and she would have to recommend a new plan for a board vote.
She said the board’s attorney is working now to draft a letter to the judge for approval of the plan under Lee v. Macon.
Ross noted that the original estimate for repurposing Cobb was less than $9 million, but after input from teachers, administrators and others, the architect offered a $16 million proposal that included a 500-seat auditorium and additional outdoor sports facilities, a project Mayor Vaughn Stewart recently endorsed as something that could be a community center by night.
Robison wasn’t buying it.
“What we have done, unequivocally,” the former Anniston mayor said, “is we have changed this thing from being academic- and system- and student-oriented to being money-oriented … rather than what is the best academic setting for the kids and to make the best use of the money.”
Robison said spending $16 million on a school is a “ridiculous waste of money.”
Hutchings noted early in the meeting that this cost could be trimmed.
“I think we need to give our students the best, and we need to decide that collectively…We need to decide what we want to give our students regardless of cost, first of all, and then see where that puts us,” Huguley said.
The issues of the night were complex, in some respects frustrating, and the meeting’s atmosphere reflected that. Members raised their voices and talked over each other and tempers flared as well. While Robison was trying to make a point about potential increased costs for decentralizing the sixth grade, he told Klinefelter to “get that smirk off your face,” leading her to tell him he owed her an apology for the remark.
Robison offered no apology during the meeting, but Hutchings did apologize to Ross for his behavior in the meeting with a handshake.
— In a brief special meeting, the board also approved an additional cost of $200 for an online community survey as part of the superintendent search conducted by BWP Associates.
Staff Writer Paige Rentz: 256-235-3564. On Twitter @PRentz_Star.