Elect 2012: Central office budget a top issue during Tuesday's school board candidate forum
By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY - Candidates seeking a spot on the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education have varying opinions about the budget for the construction of the district's downtown central office.
The issue emerged following a question posed during a forum held at Catawba College on Tuesday.
Moderator Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba, asked the candidates for the Salisbury seat Bryce Beard, Constance "Connie" Johnson and Quentin Woodward Jr. whether the school board should ask the Rowan County Board of Commissioners for an extra $1.4 million to cover the higher than anticipated construction bids for the building. Earlier this year, commissioners approved a $6 million budget for the project.
Architect Bill Burgin told the board last week the best bet would be to secure the $7.4 million needed to build the 48,818 square-foot facility along with a 14,000 square-foot shell because construction costs are relatively low and building the facility to size with the proper infrastructure would make future expansions more cost efficient.
All seven candidates who participated in the forum ended up weighing in on the project, with all but one agreeing a new central office should be constructed now. Chuck Hughes, who is also running for the Salisbury seat, was not present Tuesday.
"Do we need a new facility, absolutely," said Josh Wager, a candidate for the east seat. "Do we need it now? I don't think so. I think we need to take the money we have, put it in the classroom and stop divvying it out to our personal pet projects and agendas."
Woodward, along with southeast candidates Susan Cox and Dr. Lynn Marsh, said it's time to build the facility, but it should stay within the $6 million budget set by commissioners.
"My position is that the architect, the superintendent and the other key players involved in the construction of this site should come together and make whatever changes, modifications and reductions to the building so that we can stay within that $6 million figure," Woodward said.
Cox said before retiring from her teaching career with the district, she would attend training sessions at the current administrative office on Long Street in East Spencer and she did not feel safe.
"If I didn't feel safe going there occasionally I'm certainly am not going to ask employees to work in that building every day," she said. "We do need it now, but I think we need to take into consideration the economy and we need to cut the fluff, the large windows, we need to use the PVC pipes, we need to use the board table that presently exists and do all that we can to cut back."
But Cox is in favor of spending the money needed to build the central office with the infrastructure necessary for expansion.
"I think that's the most responsible use of the money," she said.
Marsh said she'd like local contractors to work on the central office, but she didn't waver on the dollar amount.
"Can we get local people involved in building that building so we can put tax dollars back into our system in our county instead of giving it back to Charlotte-Mecklenburg," she said. "We have people who are out of work, so we need to make sure that we keep our projects local."
Johnson said the district should look for outside funding sources.
"What we need to do is not focus so much on what we're receiving through our tax dollars, but what we need to do as citizens to galvanize to create new revenue streams," she said. "I believe we can raise the funds needed to cover all of our expenses for our schools."
Beard and fellow incumbent Dr. Jim Emerson, who is facing Wagner for the east seat, agree the school board should seek the additional funds to build the central office with all the square footage needed.
"Straight up yes I would ask the county commissioners for the approval to borrow the money to build the building the way it was proposed in the first place, so it will be a true central office and will house all the people that it needs," he said. "That way it will be done and over with, not something we talk about for the next 20 years."
Beard pointed out the district is seeking a loan that will be paid back through sales tax dollars that are appropriated for capital expenditures.
Bitzer asked the south and southeast candidates about the school board's decision to dip into the fund balance, questioning what their priorities would be in setting the budget for the district.
Emerson and Cox agreed with the board's decision to utilize the fund balance.
"We're not in the best economic times, so I think that going into the fund balance to bridge the gap is a responsible thing to do," Cox said.
Emerson was in favor of the decision because $375,000 in local dollars used to save eight teaching positions ended up being allocated by county commissioners to fund classroom supplies.
"I did vote to do it and I probably would again," he said.
Marsh said the district needs to take a closer look at how money is currently being spent.
"If we're putting money into programs that data has shown are not working then they need to be dropped," she said. "We need to make sure that we're putting our funds where the children are going to benefit from them first."
Wagner said he's a proponent of spending the money the district already has.
"We talk about more money, less money, what can we do with the money that we want, the problem is that we don't focus enough on the money that we have."
Wagner pointed out superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom's salary of more than $200,000 and the fact that eight school administrators have a combined salary of almost $1 million.
"Now, I'm not here to take money from anybody, but what I'm saying folks is if we're going to talk about nickels and dimes, we need to look at the dollars being spent," he said.
The Salisbury candidates answered a question about what the phrase "public education is broken" means to them and provided feedback about the steps that should be taken to fix it.
Woodward said student achievement stands out his top concern. He said finding ways to get parents more involved and initiating more programs to prevent bullying and gang activity would foster academic success.Beard said the breakdown of the family is what is destroying public schools. He said that creates two groups of students, those who are prepared for school because of their support system and those who are struggling.
"The education process works better when you have a partnership and acceptance of responsibility between the school, home and community," he said.
Johnson said the public school system is not broken, but it does need some tweaking. She suggest adding classes to teach students time management, study habits and social skills.
"We have children as I've mentioned in previous forums who arrive to schools with inequitable conditions," she said. "There are children who have libraries at home and two parents who provide mock tests, then you have another child who is sleeping with other siblings, who did not get breakfast. They arrive to the same classroom and are expected to perform the same."
Those who missed the forum can catch it later this week on Access 16.
The Post will run another story with more in-depth information about each candidate and their views this Sunday.
Early voting begins Oct. 18 and Election Day is Nov. 6. Rowan residents can vote for all three school board races regardless of where they live.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.