Talks need more input

  • Posted: Sunday, December 15, 2013 12:41 a.m.

Imagine hearing out of the blue that the county wanted to close your school and consolidate it with another.

Hundreds of Rowan County families and educators got that jolt Monday when Vice Chairman Craig Pierce suggested the Rowan County Board of Commissioners offer the school board funds for a consolidated elementary school to replace Cleveland and Woodleaf schools. Price tag: $22 million.

The motion passed, 3-2, with Chairman Jim Sides and Commissioner Jon Barber voting no. Sides said the county didn’t have the money; Barber said the people should have input before commissioners voted on such an important project.

Barber is right about that. The families who send their children to Cleveland and Woodleaf made it quite clear just a few years ago that they preferred their separate if older buildings to a new consolidated school. Cleveland and Woodleaf are two distinct communities, and so far they’ve been fortuate in retaining their community schools. And some of the reasoning Pierce offered Monday — that Woodleaf was trucking in water — was not even true, the school’s principal later said.

So what’s going on here? This is another step in the ongoing budget mediation between the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and commissioners. Part of the schools’ request is funding for a new elementary school, a replacement school for Knox Middle and the central office. But this is the first time in a while that the word “consolidated” was attached to the new elementary school. At any rate, with Monday’s vote, commissioners are assenting to two out of three capital requests. (Earlier they OK’d $6 million for a central office, as long as it’s not the South Main site.) This may avert the potential lawsuit that has hung over commissioners’ heads for the past five months. But the secrecy shrouding these maneuvers has stretched the Open Meetings Law to the limit and beyond. If they’re talking about matters like this — building a new consolidated school — they should be talking in the open and inviting public input.

Figures from 2011-12 show Cleveland is the smallest elementary school in the system, with 302 students. But combining it with Woodleaf’s 396 would build a student body of nearly 700, the biggest elementary school in the county. (The next closest, Knollwood, has 655; the county average is 463.) With all the talk of giving families “choice” when it comes to education, both boards should listen when parents say they want to keep their community schools. Cleveland and Woodleaf schools are not pawns or bargaining chips; they are respected community institutions.They’re not to be tossed aside.

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