School officials dispute problems listed at Knox

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 15, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
SALISBURY — Officials with the Rowan-Salisbury School System reacted Thursday to recent speculation surrounding the upkeep of Knox Middle School and the district’s ongoing discussion about a new central office building.
District spokeswoman Rita Foil sent out a press release which she said was in response to “recent coverage in the local media concerning the sanitary and safety conditions” at Knox.
Some of the press release appears aimed at refuting charges made by the Rev. Bill Godair of Cornerstone Church in a letter to Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent Dr. Judy Grissom, county commissioners and the Post.
Members of Godair’s church have volunteered to clean and paint Knox and replace some items such as worn-out carpet. The church raised several thousand dollars for repairs at the school after hearing that conditions inside included rodent droppings and roaches.
They’ve been allowed on campus this week to paint outside the buildings, pull weeds and pick up trash on the grounds, but have been largely kept out of the buildings.
In his letter, Godair called for an independent committee that includes educators, elected officials and parents to inspect county schools and recommend improvements.
“If it needs cleaning, let’s clean it. If it needs painting, let’s paint it. If it has bugs, let’s spray it. There are numerous churches and community groups lined up to help,” he wrote. “This community can get it done.”
Carl Ford, vice chairman of the county commissioners, said a committee is a good idea.
“I think we as a community probably need to be more involved in the schools,” he said. “I think maybe it would bring things to light that people probably don’t see or don’t know about.”
Commissioner Raymond Coltrain said the formation of such a committee is “between the school board and Pastor Godair.”
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Knox failed the “Clean School Inspection” conducted by the independent inspection company Saffelle this spring.
Foil said in the release that those results led to personnel changes at the school.
Dr. James Davis took over as principal when Rodney Burton stepped down. The head custodian resigned and has been replaced.
A Post reporter requested copies of the results from the Saffelle inspection three times Thursday, but Foil never responded.
The school received a 93 on its county health inspection at the end of January.
The inspector docked the school for broken tiles in the showers. A note was also made to “repair floors, walls and ceilings as needed.”
The school system cites a 2010 Teacher Working Conditions survey in which 72 percent of teachers at Knox agreed the school is “clean and well maintained.” District-wide 85 percent of teachers agree with the statement.
The anonymous survey is conducted statewide every two years.
School board Chairman Dr. Jim Emerson said he realizes there are issues at Knox.
“Yes, it needed a kind of superficial overhaul,” he said.
Emerson said it’s the responsibility of the school adminstration to not only be the “instructional leader” but also a “building manager.”
“I think for some of the previous principals, their survival was more important to them than the building,” he said.
Emerson said the cleanliness of the building is also in the eye of the beholder.
“Some people just can’t see dirt, and some people see dirt others don’t,” he said.
But Emerson said he knows a lot of money has been poured into the school throughout the past several years.
More than $1 million in repairs and additions have been done at Knox since 2006, Foil said in the release. Those projects include adding security cameras throughout the campus and replacing the flooring, roof and blinds. A new air conditioning system was put in the gym.
“Knox has not been neglected,” Emerson said. “I think there are some cosmetic things that could be done, but I also think if you’ve got a good teacher you can hold class in a tent, and that’s the most important thing.”
School board member Bryce Beard said the school system is doing everything it can to make improvements at Knox. “A lot of money has been spent on that school, more than some of the others,” he said. “This is a 50-year-old school. It requires a lot of upkeep.”
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Despite allegations to the contrary, Foil said the district has no money budgeted for a new administrative building.
Godair at one time hoped to sell the current Cornerstone Church campus on Webb Road to the school system for its central office. In his letter, Godair wrote that Gene Miller, the former assistant superintendent of operations who headed up negotiations for the school system, “shared with me that he had about $1 million in a fund that the County Commissioners knew about. He went on to say that he had another $750,000 set aside that they did not know about.”
“I think (Godair’s) blowing smoke,” Emerson said. “I don’t know where he is coming from.”
But Ford said this isn’t the first time he’s heard mention of Miller talking about secret funds.
“Now that I’m starting to hear it over and over, it lends a little credence to the story,” he said. “But I don’t have a clue. They are saying that they don’t have the funds.”
Miller retired at the end of July. He declined to comment when a Post reporter contacted him at his home Thursday.
The school system’s annual audit is conducted by the independent firm of Dixon Hughes Goodman LLP in accordance with Government Auditing Standards, Foil said in the release.
“There is no secret account and no means for ‘hiding’ funds,” she said.
Godair called for an independent audit of the school system’s finances to determine if money has been saved for a central office.
“I wouldn’t mind some outside firm looking into the finances,” Ford said.
Coltrain said another audit could be a costly endeavor that he deems unnecessary.
“The school system is already audited by an outside firm, so I wouldn’t see the reason or the justification to bring in an additional outside auditor,” he said. “I feel confident with the credibility of the information we receive.”
Godair said if there is any additional money in school system accounts it should first go to improving schools.
Godair, who at one time offered to sell the Cornerstone church campus on Webb Road to the school system, wrote in the letter that after touring current school system offices and seeing conditions in them, he supports a new central office “no matter where it’s located as long as all the details make sense.”
“As much as I’m in favor of those folks having good working conditions, I am also in favor of our children having a good, clean, safe working environment,” he wrote.
Ford said he’s fine with the district building a central office as long as officials address the “deplorable conditions” at schools.
“Right now I agree with Pastor Godair. Let’s get these school buildings straightened out first,” he said.
Beard said he feels Godair’s letter is an attack.
“My opinion is that this is a politically guided ambush so that they can try to undermine the progress we have made in trying to get a central office building for the schools,” he said. “Not a new central office, but the first.”
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The school system has been looking for ways to combine its five administrative offices into one since Salisbury City Schools and Rowan County Schools merged in 1989.
A variety of options have been considered, but none have been viable because of cost, Foil said in the release.
The most recent proposal includes a lease/purchase agreement through a private developer to build in downtown Salisbury. It would require no up-front dollars.
The total cost of the project would come in at more than $8.6 million, but $1.5 million in tax credits and a school board option to purchase fee of $200,000 would knock the final cost down to about $6.9 million.
Foil said the district realizes the need to rebuild Knox as well as Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools, but it would cost about $55 million to do so.
“The only way there would be enough funds to tackle these larger projects would be another bond referendum,” she said in the release.
Foil said the dollars for a central office cannot be generated until the current offices are no longer occupied.
“There is no parallel between the funding for the upkeep of facilties at Knox or any other school in the district and the newly presented proposal for a new administrative central office building,” she said.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.