Cleveland opposes planned school consolidation

CLEVELAND — Members of the town’s Board of Commissioners “strongly oppose” building a consolidated elementary school in the western part of the county, according to a resolution the board has passed.

The resolution is in response to plans to merge Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools in a new school built in western Rowan County. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education secured funding for the project through its mediation agreement with county commissioners earlier this year.

The resolution, approved in May, states several reasons for the board’s opposition. Cleveland leaders believe, for example, that students learn best when they are in classes with children they are familiar with, making the community school environment the best option for the town’s students.

The resolution also states that Cleveland Elementary has been repeatedly rated as one of the county’s top elementary schools in recent years, and its facility is well constructed and doesn’t have water and sewer issues like those at Woodleaf Elementary.

In addition, the town board argued that when Millbridge Elementary School was built, Mount Ulla Elementary wasn’t forced to consolidate with the new school – despite similar school size and proximity. (In 2012-13, enrollment was 313 at Mount Ulla and 559 at Millbridge, compared to 408 at Woodleaf and 293 at Cleveland.)

Town leaders stated that if the merger does occur, however, they want the current school building to be torn down to prevent it from deteriorating and becoming an unsafe structure due to no upkeep.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann stressed that the final decision to combine the schools was made as a result of the mediation agreement.

According to Rita Foil, the district’s public information officer, community meetings were held at both schools when the proposal was brought up six years ago.

“It was pretty obvious that both communities liked their community schools,” she said.

When the school board initially asked the county for funding, it requested funds to combine the schools or to replace Woodleaf and make repairs to Cleveland.

After months of negotiations, however, that wording was modified to only include a consolidated school.

Vann said Cleveland’s concerns would probably be communicated to county commissioners through the Joint Planning Committee, which is made of representatives from the county and the school system to discuss the district’s capital projects.

Vann doesn’t know if commissioners would be willing to renegotiate the terms of the mediation agreement, he said.

“I’m just not sure how flexible our commissioners would be on that,” he said. “I’m sure it would be a difficult task.”

Foil said the situation is “in the hands of elected officials,” adding that it is each school’s responsibility to focus on the students and learning, while following any laws or guidelines.

Kay Wright Norman, vice chair of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the western part of the district’s representative , said the school board believes the consolidation is the correct choice for the two communities, “We need to do what’s in the best interest of the future of the community.”

“We don’t build schools often,” she said, adding, “We’re looking out for the future. We need to look past the tips of our noses.”

Norman said the school board had several concerns at both schools, particularly the age of the buildings.

Woodleaf Elementary also has a water shortage.

“It’s a health issue,” Norman said.

Norman also pointed out that if not consolidated, both buildings would need to be upgraded in order to accommodate new technology.

“It’s more efficient to have one school than to operate two,” Vann said.

“Both schools are quite aged” and would require quite a bit of new equipment, he said. “But, I understand that people want to have their community schools.”

“We’re not trying to do anything to hurt any part of the county – it’s not a Woodleaf versus Cleveland,” Norman said.

“We don’t want to force anything on the community,” she said, but added the school board wants to be proactive.

“We need to always be ahead of a potential problem,” she said.

Norman added that the district hopes to find land that could be “very accommodating to both communities.”

Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody declined to comment on Cleveland’s resolution, saying discussing it would be “premature” because the district’s Board of Education “hasn’t dealt with it yet.”

Cleveland Mayor Danny Gabriel could not be reached for comment.

Becky Kepley-Lee and Kristine Wolfe, principals of Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools, directed comments back to Foil.

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