School board chair: Legal challenge “certainly one option” in dispute with county

The chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education says his board could mount a legal challenge after county commissioners’ latest snub of the school board’s pick for a new central office site.

Dr. Richard Miller said the board will meet with attorney Richard Schwartz on Dec. 10 to discuss ongoing disputes with the Rowan County Board of Commissioners over the central office site and school system budget.

“My feeling is it’s time to move on to another venue, if that’s what the board wants to do, or we can say, ‘No, county commission, you can run the school board, and we’ll all step aside,’ ” Miller said today.

As to whether that next venue might be court, Miller said, “That’s certainly one option we have to look at, yes.”

The struggle over the central office has been going on since February, when commissioners rejected the city-owned site at 329 S. Main St., then citing contamination at the former service station location. The land has been cleaned up and the city got a letter from the state Department of Environment and Natural Resources saying no further action is needed there.

In November, the school board considered several parcels offered by the county and concluded that building downtown was still the best and least expensive option at $7.7 million. At their meeting Monday, however, commissioners repeated an offer to finance $6 million for a central office anywhere other than South Main Street. They also offered to pay some engineering and architectural drawing costs if the school system builds at the former county Department of Social Services location on West Innes Street.

Building on that site, the school board heard last month, would cost nearly $8.6 million. And Miller said the additional fees the county is willing to pay are “somewhat insignificant.”

Miller said there are two issues at stake: cost and who has the statutory right to determine where the central office is built.

“Six million won’t build what everybody agrees the needs are, and the county commission has no authority over the site, so it’s not a new proposal,” he said.

Miller said the central office and two other capital projects — a new or renovated Knox Middle School and a new elementary school in western Rowan — are tied up in the continuing discord over the school system’s budget.

The two bodies have been in mediation since June, when the school board passed a resolution saying funds appropriated by commissioners for the current school year — for operations and capital needs — “are not sufficient … to support a system of free public schools.”

Miller said there’s been no real progress on the budget. With commissioners’ renewed offer last month to pay for a central office and the school board’s determination that the downtown site was the most economical, he “thought capital had been taken off the table.” But now he doesn’t believe that.

“Particularly when they throw in, ‘You can’t build it here,’ ” he said.

Schwartz, the attorney advising the school board, represented the Union County school system earlier this year when it won a lawsuit against that county’s board of commissioners. A jury awarded the school system $91 million in additional money, most of it for capital expenses.

After consulting with the lawyer, Miller said, the school board could “throw in the towel” and accept commissioners’ mandate to build a central office anywhere but the South Main Street site — which may lead to a budget agreement — or it could take action to challenge the county’s authority to issue such an edict and its budget appropriation.

Miller is “hopeful they will” take action, he said. “It’s time.”

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