From here, the choice is clear. The board should move Anniston’s middle-school students to another location and market the Alabama 21 property to retail developers.
Problem is, we’re searching for confidence in the board’s ability to make prudent decisions that (a.) vastly improve the education offered to Anniston students, and (b.) better the system’s bottom line through consolidation of its bloated collection of half-empty campuses.
The system’s best hope burst like a frozen water pipe late last month with Anniston Mayor Vaughn Stewart’s message that the city was no longer interested in buying the property. Dating back to the previous mayor and council, the city had long had a sincere interest in the property, though, in the case of the Stewart City Hall, it had no intention of footing most of the bill for the property and the system’s renovation or building of another campus. Among some parties involved, expectations between the board and city as to who would pay for what — and how much — widely differed.
In effect, the system went from having a first-rate partner for the sale — a partner with a vested interest in the deal working for both sides — to having no partner at all.
But you can see why the city made its decision.
The school board, elected in 2012, has found it difficult to either compromise or build consensus on this issue. Turf war and ward politics have played out in board meetings; at least one of those meetings has included heated exchanges and apologies between board members. One board member, Board President Donna Ross, voted last spring for the plan to close the middle school and repurpose Cobb Elementary as a junior high. She later told her colleagues she believed she made a mistake voting yes at the time.
At one point, the board considered an architect’s proposal for building a new junior high at Cobb Elementary School that would include athletic fields and an auditorium. The proposed cost: $16 million. Board member Bill Robison said that idea would be a “ridiculous waste of money.”
Nevertheless, nothing has changed, no real movement has been made. The best option is to spend moderately on the high school’s Woodstock Avenue campus and move the middle-school students there. That makes sense, especially in fiscal terms.
It’s unfortunate that the future of Anniston Middle School is a symbol of the school board’s dysfunction.