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Redistricting hearing draws a crowd

By Kathy Chaffin
kchaffin@salisburypost.com
Thirty people spoke at Monday night’s public hearing on the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s proposed redistricting plan.
With everyone using all of their allotted three minutes, that took up the 90 minutes set aside for the hearing in the Southeast Middle School gymnasium.
Dr. Jim Emerson, chairman of the Board of Education, offered the 10 people who signed an overflow sheet a chance to speak at the board’s next regular meeting on Nov. 23.
Comments at the public hearing were similar to those at last Monday night’s hearing in the Knox Middle School auditorium, with the majority speaking out against the plan.
This time, however, several students and a few teachers joined parents and community residents in opposing the plan, which would change district lines for all of the county’s six high schools except Salisbury.
Two West Rowan students ó Olivia McSwain and Lindsey Shoaf ó submitted petitions signed by 497 students to the board.
Some of the speakers offered alternative solutions to the problem of underutilization at North High. Brent Houpe proposed using Salisbury High School as the school system’s administrative offices, an idea discussed years ago, and dividing the county’s students among the remaining five high schools.
His suggestion drew loud applause from the 300-plus people at the hearing and a second by Payson Shumacher, who spoke later in the hearing.
Teresa Craven said, “Instead of uprooting children,” board members should find other ways of improving the situation at North. The $40,000 cost of the redistricting study would have gone a long way toward doing that, she said.
Craven also inspired applause with her strong closing statement: “I feel if we don’t have a choice and our hand is forced, the community will respond to you very loudly and very clearly, and you will not be serving as our board of education again.”
Her husband, Glenn, said he didn’t think it was the responsibility of the other districts to fix problems at North.
Steve Cole described the proposed plan as an attempt to “put a Band-Aid on a severed artery” and suggested fixing the problems at North so its enrollment would grow on its own. Turning the school into a vocational/trade center would be one way to do that, he said.
Douglas Cline, who also spoke against the plan at the Knox hearing, proposed approaching the situation at North like the “Field of Dreams” movie. “Let’s build it up …” he said. “The children will come. They will come on their own, without anger, without busing and without being forced.”
A handful of speakers spoke in favor of the plan.
Megan Braun, a student at North Rowan, said the school reputation as portrayed at the hearings is unfair and that she and her students deserve the same access to classes, equipment and curriculum as everyone else.
Doug Sokolowski said part of the West district that would go to South under the proposed plan was once a part of South and that his nieces and nephews who attend North deserve to have access to the same college prep classes as other students. One of his nephews currently drives to another school for a college prep class, he said, but not all students are able to do that.
Dale Peeler of Faith was the first person to speak, saying the town of Faith had always been a diehard East Rowan community. That all changed four years ago, he said, when students in Faith were transferred to the new Carson High School.
Peeler said it took the school four years to build its relationships, PTA and Booster Club. “Just when we’re about to graduate our first class, you’re ready to make us change again,” he said. “We really don’t want to be part of a ping-pong game where we’re bounced back and forth every three or four years.”
Dylan Eagle, a student at Carson, said the plan would tear apart what the school has become ó “a family.” His mother, Paula, also spoke against the plan.
Eddie Piatt objected to the redistricting plan because it would move about 350 students from West. He also noted that East parents have said they would sell their houses or put their children in private schools if they are moved to the North district.
“School spirit and loyalty is something in your heart,” he said, “and it’s not something that can be created by force.”
Tolitha Lowman said, “Change and more change can have a negative impact on our young people already in their years of development.”
Chris Beck, president of the West Rowan Band Booster Club, said the proposed redistricting plan would have an adverse effect on the award-winning band as well as other programs and clubs.
“The main issue here is favoritism,” he said. “Salisbury is not giving up anything. …”
Pat Phifer, just re-elected to the Cleveland Town Board of Commissioners, missed its November meeting to speak against the redistricting plan because of the impact it would have on West’s successful programs.
Olivia McSwain, as the current president of the student body at West, said she would never show the kind of prejudice the board members were showing by not including Salisbury High in their proposed redistricting plan. “If change is really needed,” she said, “please at least make it fair.”Fellow students Lindsey Shoaf, James Goodnight, Molly Cogburn and Beverly Hampton also spoke against moving students from West to South.
Meagan Parish and Carla Epps, both teachers at West, addressed the impact the proposed plan would have on the school, including fewer students and staff, and ultimately offerings.
“We stand to gain … nothing,” Parish said. North needs help, she said, but “should West Rowan be scarified in order to help them? No.”
After explaining the concept of democracy to her social studies students, Epps said she can’t justify board members’ “slap in the face with blatant favoritism” toward Salisbury High School.
Rebecca Schill of the Carson district said the board was treating students and parents like pawns in a chess game in the proposed plan. “You have no justification for what you are doing …,” she said. “The chess pawn is placing the school board in check.”
Derwood Puckett said the redistricting plan is being proposed at a time when county residents are already having to deal with terrorist threats and a failing economy. “Why are you doing this?” he asked. “We need stability.”
Leaving Salisbury High School out of the plan and forcing students from other districts to move for the benefit of North “has a communist slant,” he said. “Keep the districts as they are.”
Steve Cole said Salisbury High School “was given a free pass from the pain of redistricting.”
James Flynn of the Crescent subdivision said the Salisbury district didn’t want to receive favoritism.
Marti Lakey said she and her husband, Jon, chief photographer for the Salisbury Post, purchased their home so their children could attend Morgan Elementary, where the education they received was “above what we had hoped for.”
Their sons found their niche in the JROTC program at East Rowan, she said, and their daughter, who would be in the North district under the proposed plan, had hoped to follow in their footsteps.
Lakey drew applause when she said she was speaking as a mother concerned about what is best for her children.
Other people who spoke at the hearing included Paul Halgin, Rob Fisher, Reid Walters and Javin Honeycutt.
Emerson urged everyone to send letters, cards, e-mails, blogs, even Twitter messages to board members stating their views on the proposed plan.
Contact Kathy Chaffin at 704-797-4249.

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