Atlanta High School’s 115-Year History Ends this Fall as School Board Struggles with Finances

(Cutline for the photo used in the header: Supt Alfred Simmons and President Joe Lynn Browning view speaker request cards at the head of the board table prior to the July 3rd meeting. The seating at the back of the room is filled.)

It’s served the educational needs of area students since 1908 but the doors of Atlanta High School won’t open this fall after the Winn Parish School Board voted 6-5 on July 3 to transfer students of all grades from AHS to Winnfield schools beginning the 2023-24 school year.

The continued decline in student enrollment parish-wide and a financial shortfall, notably from the state’s Minimum Foundation funding, were cited as primary factors in this historic action.

“This was difficult and a decision nobody wants,” said Supt. Alfred Simmons, “but the board must act on what is best for all students of the entire system.”  Comments pointed to a need to separate the financial reality facing the system as the board looks towards the new year and the emotional trauma as residents look back at a community institution that has stood for over a century.

And there was plenty of emotion Monday night at the school board office.  Due to fire marshal standards, seating was limited.  By a half hour in advance, the room was at capacity with board members, staff and supporters of both Atlanta and Winnfield schools.  A large gathering was also outside, unable to gain access.

Board discussion was brief prior to the vote being called.  Noted by several was their increased awareness of the system’s financial plight since their previous vote June 13 at WSHS.  In that 6-4 vote, it seemed that AHS’s fate had been staved off.  

Once the motion and second were made Monday on the superintendent’s recommendation, a public comment session opened.  Eleven citizens had turned in cards asking to be recognized for brief statements.  Most made pleas to keep Atlanta open for the role it serves for the children.  Several spoke on behalf of the Winnfield schools where class sizes were stressed while finances maintained the small school.  All remained orderly.

Compared to the June 13 session, Atlanta comments seemed more focused on the manner in which the superintendent and board had reached this choice.  It’s been just a month since the closure plan was broached and there are only 40 days until the new school year, leaving little time for organization.  Since leaders are well aware of the enrollment/funding trends, why wasn’t planning already in the works and generally known?  There was a plea for transparency in board action.  If consolidation is the longterm plan, start now, it was suggested.  This action is too rushed and perhaps a one-year postponement could be won, it was observed.  (Member Dan Taylor later observed that the pattern of the board’s actions “have sent a mixed message to teachers and students alike.”)

But continued funding to maintain a small school at comfortable levels puts stress on the remaining schools in the system, others noted.  Understaffing at Winnfield Primary School has resulted in third grade classes with over 30 children.  Similar problems at WSHS have resulted due to teacher cuts.  One said, “We’re also a family in Winnfield and we fail our students if we don’t address class size.  We cannot sacrifice many for the few.”

Simmons told the gathering that eight other citizens turned in cards, indicating they wished to register their opinions without publically speaking.  That result was five in support of the student transfer and three in opposition.

When the vote was called, members who agreed with the recommendation to transfer students of all grades from AHS to Winnfield schools were Joe Llaine Long, Michael Riffe, Lacey McManus, Lance Underwood, Michelle Carpenter and Steve Vines.  Those opposed were Dan Taylor, Patrick Howell, Harry Scott, Amber Cox and Joe Lynn Browning.

While the president of a public body does not traditionally vote except to break a tie, president Browning told the Journal at the meeting’s conclusion that he wanted his opposition vote on the record “because the people in my district have the right to know where I stand on this issue.”

When school board meeting room capacity was reached Monday night, late-comers had to await the news outside.  Once the board’s vote was taken, there was little reason for some visitors to remain and they too went outside.