Cook: Important dates in central office history

  • Posted: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:57 a.m.
    UPDATED: Sunday, February 10, 2013 12:58 a.m.

In some ways, the debate over the Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ central office dates back to 1989, when the two school systems merged.

In a more immediate way, the debate has its roots in the pivotal moment of July 17, 2012. A little more than 8 percent of Rowan voters cast ballots in the second primary held that mid-summer day. That’s when things unraveled — or came together, depending on your point of view.


Rowan County commissioners had already agreed to get a loan of up to $6 million for a central office. The letter of support even gave the school board permission to seek funding elsewhere for the $2 million more needed for the new structure school leaders had in mind.

But someone — or ones — decided that wasn’t enough.

Gene Miller, the school administrator in charge of the central office project, decided to run for the county commission. Former commission chairman Gus Andrews and Miller led the Republican ticket in the primary. Rowan appeared to be on its way to electing a commission that might back the entire $8 million and be less contentious in general.

But it was a close vote. Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey finished close enough to Miller and Andrews to call for a second primary.

While Andrews and Miller waited to see what the second primary would bring, commissioner Jim Sides went to work, and few people work harder. Sides, who voted against the county’s $6 million commitment, was not up for election this time, but his hopes for a majority were. Obama’s election machine has nothing on Sides’ one-on-one, church to church push to get like-minded voters to the polls.

While the first primary had nine candidates splitting the vote, the second primary had just four. After the ballots were counted, fewer than 350 votes separated the top finisher from fourth place.

Though Andrews and Miller had led the first primary with 5,808 and 5,203 votes, respectively, Pierce and Caskey won the second primary with 2,843 and 2,746 votes. But it was a win, regardless. And, with all due respect to Democratic candidates Leda Belk and Ralph Walton, Pierce’s and Caskey’s victory in the general election was a virtual done deal.

The pro-central office crowd lost more than the second primary. They lost valuable time for getting the project started. The clock ran out on their three-vote majority on the commission, and the Sides-Pierce-Caskey coalition voted down the $6 million loan.

As was their prerogative, they didn’t care that the school system had spent money planning the building, or that the city was cleaning up a site to donate at considerable cost to the state.

The city had already committed to getting a $2 million loan for the central office and giving a free site and free parking. Now city council is offering to get financing for the entire $8 million.

Whoa.

What if the project runs over budget? In the past, the school system has turned to the county commission for help. Will the city fill that role now?

What price will the school system pay when county budget time rolls around? The process is always contentious, no matter who’s in the majority. Will commissioners be even less receptive now? Is that possible?

Will this kill whatever slight chance there was of harmony between the county commission and city council, if there was one?

A lot of questions remain to be answered.

To some, this looks like a power play. To city council members, it’s a matter of development.

And leadership.

The school board has been on the verge of landing a central office many times, only to hit an obstacle and back down. They say you find what you look for, and commissioners have a knack for finding problems with central office sites.

In 2010, the school board looked at Cornerstone Church’s property in the county. No way, we can’t afford it, commissioners said.

Ironically, once the downtown site came up, some commissioners wanted to take another look at the church property.

Further back, in 2005, the school board explored the former Bendix building, visible from I-85 near Innes Street. Commissioners sounded the alarm about contamination, as they have done again with the downtown site. The school board moved on.

Within a few months, Power Curbers bought the property and moved its operation there from Bringle Ferry Road.

Company President and CEO Dyke Messinger says Power Curbers paid nothing to clean up the tract. That was all done by the prior owner and Bendix.

It was a good move, Messinger says. The company was able to put all its employees in the same work area, which improved communication.

The financing for a downtown central office, if the city goes through with it, would be a pass-through loan. The school system would pay it off with sales tax revenue it can only spend on capital projects like buildings.

That’s completely separate from the money it can spend on books, classroom supplies, teacher salaries and so on.

Yes, this building could be a boon to the downtown. More important, though, it will enable the school system to put all its administrative employees in the same building — moving some from the decrepit and potentially dangerous Long Street offices — so they can better focus on the real job at hand, improving public education in Rowan County.

But city and school leaders better move fast. Another pivotal date looms ahead: Nov. 5 and the next city council election.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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