The individual made sure everyone in the crowd at the South Highland Community Center knew that their Ward 3 council incumbent, Ben Little, was nowhere to be seen.
The ward’s other candidates did attend. They were city council hopeful Seyram Selase, Board of Education member Mary Harrington and her opponent for the seat, C. K. Huguley.
Joanett Cunningham, a resident of Ward 3, came to the meeting to hear what the candidates had to say so she could decide who would get her vote. After the meeting she said she knew how that vote was going to go.
“But I won’t say,” Cunningham said with a laugh.
The forum, a chance for residents to hear candidates for Ward 3 board of education and city council seats answer questions posed to them by the moderator, drew more than 150 residents to the community center.
As residents entered the gymnasium, they were directed to submit any questions they had for the candidates and the moderator would ask them. Cunningham said she had submitted two questions and heard both of them asked.
She wouldn’t say what the second question was, but her first question had been how would he stop the bickering on the council. The question was apparently on a lot of people’s minds and was met with approval from the audience.
“What’s the phrase, if you see two people at a distance arguing, you can’t tell which one’s the fool,” Selase answered. “I refuse at the same time to be made out to be a fool.”
If the councilmen are honest with each other, talk together and work out their differences and don’t push each other’s buttons, the bickering could end, Selase said. However, he added, the current council’s wounds might be too deep to move on.
Regarding the top issues facing Anniston, Selase said that as he has spoken with voters, he’s found the issues they mention most often are safe neighborhoods and jobs. He said the two issues were connected, in that if more jobs were brought to the city, the crime rate would drop because a greater number of idle people would be off the streets.
The candidates for school board presented a much more heated debate. Huguley began the forum criticizing the performance of the current board and kept the incumbent Harrington on the defensive the entire evening.
The moderator asked how the board could be involved in improving student achievement.
Harrington said the board members needed to learn what their role is and work within those parameters to support the superintendent and school system.
Huguley read a portion of the 2011 AdvancED report, a review of the Anniston school system by the accrediting agency formerly known as the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
“Interviews with internal stakeholder groups identified a current state of disharmony in governance and leadership as a threat to the continued improvement of Anniston City Schools,” Huguley read. “We have to take a decisive role in articulating our expectations, not only for the superintendent but also for the academic achievement of all students.”
Huguley and Harrington both spoke about the importance of the board and the Anniston City Council to meet together and to work together. They both talked about the need to improve academic achievement and the system’s graduation rate. But their approaches varied. While Harrington talked about providing resources internally, Huguley spoke about creating partnerships.
“To make sure that there are policies are in place that will improve student achievement,” Harrington said. “Not just to make sure that we have policies, but that we have staff on hand to do it and that we give them resources to make it happen.”
Huguley, on the other hand, talked about a partnership she knew of between a school in another location and a nearby college. The students were able to take college classes while still in high school and when they graduated from high school could enter the college as a sophomore.
“They put more students into the college community, decreased the dropout rate in that community,” Huguley said.
But the board can’t operate alone. Education requires funding and the City Council holds the purse strings to local money. Selase recognized that responsibility. He mentioned the Alabama State Department of Education 2010 report which grades communities on the financial support of their school systems.
“The city of Anniston, we got a big, fat F,” Selase said. “The city of Oxford got an A. The city ranks number 97 out of 132 school systems as far as local funding.”
Selase would channel a large portion of the revenue from the 1-cent sales tax to the city schools, he said.
“We have to stop saying ‘those kids’,” Selase said. “These are our children.”
Star staff writer Laura Camper: 256-235-3545.