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Phillip Tutor: The obvious choice for Anniston’s school board

Old Tenth Street

This image reproduced from archives shows Tenth Street School in August 1954, right before it opened for classes for the first time. (Just seven years later, a two-story six-classroom annex would be opened on this side of the school.) In the background are the LaGarde Apartments across the street.

You know what stinks about closing Tenth Street Elementary School? 

Everything.

And you know what makes sense about closing Tenth Street Elementary School?

Everything, or nearly all of it.

No one wants their school to close. Everyone would rather the other school shut down. Surveying the community, as Superintendent Ray Hill says he plans to do, to determine parents’ preferences will assuredly show that. I’d be flabbergasted if it didn’t. 

Plus, Hill and the Anniston Board of Education are in a bind. It’s Hill’s first go-around on this eternal Anniston conundrum. But multiple iterations of the school board have mulled the problem — too many campuses for too few students — and done either (a.) not enough, or (b.) absolutely nothing.

That’s why Anniston Middle School remains way up on McClellan Boulevard. That’s why only Anniston High School sits on its large Woodstock Avenue campus. And that’s why we’re talking about this, still.

Barring an unlikely windfall, the board has no choice but to reduce the system’s footprint. Finances dictate it. We’ve known that since, well, forever. The board closed Norwood Elementary 20 years ago. It shuttered Cobb and Constantine elementaries in 2016, though Cobb now houses pre-K and kindergarten students. But the affliction’s root cause still remains, and fecklessly kicking cans because of community pushback against consolidation is the worst course the board could take. 

And there will be pushback. Bank on it. Dacia Wilson, a Tenth Street parent, told The Star’s Tim Lockette as much. “I say no, don’t close it,” she said Wednesday. “I went to school here when I was in elementary. It’s a good school.” 

No one wants their school to close.

Tenth Street may tug at Annistonians’ hearts, but it has the smallest student population (290) within a cash-strapped system that includes a high school, a middle school, three elementary schools and a pre-K/kindergarten site. It takes no expertise in school administration to see the wisdom of reducing that footprint and payroll so that it’s more in line with the realities of today’s Anniston.

Put another way, Anniston’s schools have significant financial concerns because the city isn’t what it once was. That’s ridiculously obvious. Once home to 33,000 — and boosted by Fort McClellan’s personnel — Anniston now barely has 20,000 residents, and the Census count won’t dramatically rise in coming years.

Over time, Anniston ramped up its taxpayer-funded offerings — parks, community centers, swimming pools, fire stations, public schools — based on its population. Tenth Street Elementary was built in 1954. Golden Springs Elementary opened in 1962. In 1970, Anniston had a whopping 11 elementary schools, most of them aligned with neighborhoods like South Highland and Glen Addie and Noble Street.

 But population shifts reshaped Calhoun County’s residential map. White parents largely abandoned Anniston’s schools for private options. Anniston found itself with too much stuff and too few people to warrant keeping it all. Shedding became necessary. And, in terms of perception, it hasn’t helped that so many of the systems that surround Anniston have added campuses or enlarged them. Demand drives supply.

Of course, if you sit on the school board, that historical recount offers no protection from the outcry you’ll face if you close one of Anniston’s schools. 

And, what about next time?

Which there will be, as long as Anniston’s population continues to dissolve. Financially, the big bugaboo is what to do with Anniston Middle and Anniston High: keep them, consolidate them, remodel them or sell them? Bluntly, can a system with about 1,800 students afford to keep both?

The only reason Anniston Middle sits across from McClellan is that the school board didn’t have the chutzpah to select a more central location — and, in turn, ignore others. Planting a new school west of Quintard Avenue would bring a certain response. Building one over the mountain would invite the opposite.  

Thus, the board chose not only the path of least resistance, but also the path of least foresight. And that’s why it has considered options for abandoning that site almost from day one. It was a bad decision then, and it hasn’t mellowed since. 

If Hill and the board close Tenth Street Elementary, the sadness will be real. Anniston has forever had a love affair with its neighborhood schools. But this discussion must immediately segue to a larger theme: What should a healthy and financially sound Anniston City Schools look like in 10 years, in 20 years? Should radical consolidation be on the table? Knowing what we know now, the answer is yes. 

 

Phillip Tutor — ptutor@annistonstar.com — is a Star columnist. Follow him at Twitter.com/PTutor_Star.

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