Cook column: How long must we debate central office?

  • Posted: Sunday, December 2, 2012 1:26 a.m.

In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.

— Theodore Roosevelt
Newly elected Rowan County officials might be wondering what they’ve gotten themselves into.

As soon as they’re sworn in, the new county commissioners and school board members will be asked to say yea or nay to the Main Street site that the current school board has chosen for a new central office. Officials have a financing plan and $400,000 worth of architectural work in hand.

Do these new board members want to continue to explore other sites and financing plans for another four years, as Rowan County has done for the past two decades? Or are they ready to move the public’s focus and their own energies toward other issues?

If new board members feel too rushed and need more time to think, they must not have been paying attention to county government for the past 20 years. But then, who would expect one building to generate such prolonged debate and indecision?

The list of sites that have been considered is long. The school system has finally settled on a South Main Street lot donated by the city, with the city providing parking. Most of the school system offices that are now spread over some half-dozen buildings would finally be under one roof.

The school system has been putting off this centralization for a long time. When the two school systems merged, getting school buildings in good shape was a higher priority. Rowan voters have approved three bond issues totaling some $169 million over the years to do the job. Not everyone thought those were wise, either. I would bet some of the opponents of the central office also opposed those bonds. There were cheaper alternatives. There always are. But the majority of Rowan voters have consistently supported providing up-to-date and efficient school buildings.

The children and their education come first, so that $169 million poured into school buildings. One of the first and most challenging projects was finally installing central air in every school. Administrators worked in outdated buildings on Ellis Street in Salisbury and Long Street in East Spencer while they helped bring school buildings from Mount Ulla to Rockwell up to modern standards.

Since 1993, school board members and administrators have worked through the challenging process of building a new school — finding a site, designing a structure and sometimes redrawing district lines — eight times over: West Rowan Middle, North Rowan Middle, Hanford Dole Elementary, Southeast Middle, Millbridge Elementary, Koontz Elementary, Carson High and Shive Elementary.

There have been many more projects ­— security camera systems, gyms, multipurpose rooms, tracks, tennis courts, cafeterias ... the list is endless.

The system continues to have building needs and always will — ad infinitum. Some $2.5 million goes into maintenance and repair each year and will continue to. Saying the central office should not be built because of other needs means Rowan will never build a central office.

And that’s a real possibility. There will always be another prospect just around the corner, another vacant building to consider.

The alternative of the moment is the Salisbury Mall — a 330,000-square-foot building to meet a 52,000-square-foot need. Could the school system keep the mall operating while also occupying part of it? Maybe, but let me ask — how often do you shop at Salisbury Mall?

The other scenario is to make the mall a government complex, something only the county could afford, with its hefty fund balance.

The mall pays $160,000 or more a year in property taxes. Our economy needs that building occupied by growing private enterprise — perhaps a medical complex — not government.

There are pros and cons to any site, but don’t base this decision on claims that the system hasn’t invested in classroom buildings or that administrators put themselves first. Those are stalling tactics from people who want to pull the system down, down into their own morass of indecision.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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