City officials say effort for school central office not over yet

Paul Woodson, mayor of Salisbury.
Paul Woodson, mayor of Salisbury.

SALISBURY — City officials say they haven’t given up the fight for a downtown school central office, even though Salisbury on Wednesday withdrew its application to borrow $7.37 million to construct a building at 329 S. Main St. and lease it to the school system.

“I don’t think the school office is dead by any means,” Mayor Paul Woodson said. “We’re not throwing in the towel. We’re just looking at other options.”

Woodson said he did not have any specifics and had not talked to fellow City Council members since the city pulled its application to the state’s Local Government Commission, which must give the nod before any N.C. city borrows money. City leaders said they stopped seeking loan approval because they feared a lawsuit would tie up the project for years.

In a press release announcing the withdrawal, the city listed options to save the project, including a private developer stepping in or “adequate gifts from community stakeholders could allow the city to move forward with the project without issuing debt.”

“You’ve got a very progressive, energetic, vision-minded City Council and a very vision-minded city staff and very vision-minded citizens in this city,” Woodson said.

He mentioned four prominent local philanthropists as examples.

“We have some really top-notch, civic-minded citizens,” Woodson said, adding that he had not talked to any of them about contributing to the cost of building the central office.

Mayor Pro Tem Maggie Blackwell said she was “very disappointed” about the setback but hinted the downtown central office project is not dead.

“This is just a battle, it’s not the war,” Blackwell said. “Stay tuned.”

She did not elaborate and said City Council members will discuss how to move forward at their regular meeting on Sept. 3.

The city feared a legal battle brought by Rowan County or a private citizen would tie up the proposed central office for years in court, preventing Rowan-Salisbury School System employees from working in a safe environment, according to a press release.

City Councilman Brian Miller and Gene Miller, assistant superintendent for Rowan-Salisbury Schools, told the Post they had heard that someone planned to sue the city.

But county commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said any suggestions that the county threatened or implied a threat to sue were “completely false.”

Pierce said the only time LGC staff and the county have spoken was during an Aug. 9 phone call between LGC officials, Rowan County Manager Gary Page and County Finance Director Leslie Heidrick. Pierce said LGC staff wanted “some clarification on certain parts of the application.”

“We’ve got enough on our plate that we don’t need to concern ourselves with what the city does,” Pierce said.

That call, he said, was not instigated by the county.

“When the LGC calls and asks you questions, it’s our job as public servants to answer,” he said.

Pierce brought up the county’s familiar points — that the county has offered the school system several other locations, including 25 acres at Isenberg Elementary School.

But, he said, he wasn’t sure if the county still has a revenue stream that would allow commissioners to offer the school board a new location.

“The schools will need to re-look at some of the options that were presented to them or look at some new options,” he said.

When asked about suggested litigation threats, Pierce said it was “the first I’ve heard about it.”

“We’ve never discussed that,” he said.

Most county commissioners are opposed to the downtown location for the central office. When the county pulled out, citing environmental contamination, the city stepped in to finance the project, arguing the central office is key to revitalizing South Main Street and landing a developer for the vacant Empire Hotel.

During a conference call with city officials Tuesday, LGC staff said Rowan County officials had raised questions about whether it would be legal for the city to issue debt for a school facility, according to the city.

“Ultimately, the issue would wind up being decided through the court system,” city spokeswoman Elaney Hasselmann said in the statement.

Staff for the LGC “shared their discomfort” during the conference call about the risk of approving a debt issuance that could be subject to a legal challenge, Hasselmann said.

Miller, the assistant superintendent, said he’s “disappointed and demoralized” by what has taken place.

Commission Chairman Jim Sides, Pierce and Commissioner Mike Caskey form the majority that oppose the downtown central office.

“I would say to commissioners Sides and Pierce and Caskey: Congratulations, you guys have won,” Miller said. “You have and are continuing to inhibit growth and progress in Rowan County. … You refuse to do things you are entrusted to do for the school district, such as a central office building. When somebody else tried to step up and do your job for you, all you did was block it every way you could.”

Miller said he doesn’t fault Salisbury for withdrawing its application. He said an attorney for the school board told him that “there was an indication” someone would file a lawsuit if the application went forward, but he hasn’t heard a threat of legal action himself.

“I applaud the city and their efforts,” Miller said. “They were trying to step in and do what the commissioners refuse to do, which was their duty. … I wish it could’ve been different.”

Miller, who plans to retire Sept. 30, said the school system will likely have to start over in its efforts to consolidate its administrative offices.

“Next November, there will hopefully be people elected who are more forthright and more progressive in their dealings,” Miller said.

Rowan County Commissioner Jon Barber, one of about 80 people who spoke in favor of the central office last month in City Hall, said he did not speak to LGC staff regarding the downtown location and wasn’t aware that any other commissioners spoke to the LGC.

“Am I disappointed as it relates to the potential that this project had for the revitalization and the economic growth of Salisbury? Yes, I am,” Barber said. “Do I still support this project moving forward? Yes, I do.

“But I can’t make that decision. That’s a City Council decision, and I support whatever decision they make.”

Barber said he doesn’t expect county commissioners to act on the downtown site.

“They’ll be coming right back before the county commissioners,” Barber said of the school board. “The whole process will start all over again.”

The LGC staff did not make a decision during Tuesday’s conference call or request the city withdraw its application, according to the city’s press release. Staff indicated they would continue evaluating the city’s application, the city said.

Construction bids for the project came in $1 million under budget. The low bid from Marand Builders of Charlotte expires on Sept. 7, but architect Bill Burgin said he has contacted Marand and asked if the firm will extend the bid for 30 days.

Bids to finance the project also came in under budget, and the city said the central office would cost $2.7 million less than expected to build.

“Indeed this is a project that the county needs, and everybody has acknowledged that,” Burgin said. “There is a chance that they will lose a really good deal.”

The city and county school systems merged more than two decades ago but do not have a central office.

Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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