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Salisbury City Council wants seat at school central office meetings

SALISBURY — Salisbury City Council responded Tuesday to Rowan County commissioners’ decision to delay action on the new school central office, as well as plans by some commissioners to exclude the city from future talks about the building.
City Council voted unanimously to request to participate whenever county commissioners and Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education members meet to discuss the future central office.
The city also wants the meetings to be open to the public and media, with advance notice published so anyone can attend.
“I feel strongly that you should have a seat at that table,” City Manager Doug Paris told City Council members.
The school board has chosen to build the central office downtown in the 300 block of South Main Street, where the city will donate land and provide parking. The city started cleanup of contaminated soil and removal of underground gas tanks Monday to prepare the site for construction.
County commissioners have agreed to loan the school system $6 million for the project but voted Monday to put a 60-day hold on the central office proposal so four new school board members, who will take office Dec. 17, can weigh in.
Jim Sides, new chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the meetings would not include Salisbury.
“During that time, as chairman of this board, I will get with whoever is on the school board, and we will set up a joint meeting, and we will sit down and have some good, honest discussion, but we will not have the business interests of Salisbury with us,” Sides said Monday. “It will be the school board and the county commission making a decision that I feel like you elected us to make.”
New county commissioner Craig Pierce told WSTP radio Tuesday morning the county commission and school board should meet to discuss the project, but the meeting should not include special interest groups or the media. 
Closing such a meeting to the public likely would violate state law.
Paris said the city has a stake in the central office and already has spent money on land, planning and remediation.
“We’ve got boots on the ground today,” Paris said.
Salisbury community leaders and business owners also have a strong interest in the project, Paris said, as evidenced by more than 40 people who spoke Monday in favor of the downtown location during the county commissioners’ public hearing. Eight people spoke against the downtown location.
Sides discounted the large turnout of people who spoke in favor of the downtown site and said they “don’t even have the facts.”
“They have what somebody has fed them – talking points,” Sides said. “They haven’t taken the time or energy themselves to investigate. They just had somebody send them an email and say, ‘Here’s what you need to talk about. Here’s what you need to say.’
“That disturbs me that there’s so much pressure and interest from private interest groups to push across a $6 million project that is not going to result in true consolidation for the schools.”
Sides and others criticize the proposed 49,000-square-foot building because it will not hold the entire school administration. The school system had to scale down original plans for a 65,000-square-foot central office when commissioners capped the budget at $6 million.
City Council also voted to ask the school board to affirm its decision to build the central office downtown when the board convenes Dec. 17. While two longtime school board members — Jean Kennedy and Kay Wright Norman — support the downtown location, four new members — Susan Cox, Chuck Hughes, Josh Wagner and one person to be appointed — have never voted on the issue.
Paris pointed out that the school system already has spent close to $400,000 on building design, and the city has invested in plans for parking and site preparation.
The city cannot suspend work on the project during the 60-day delay, Paris said. “If I do that, the property and parking will not be ready if the project does continue,” he said.
Plans for the parking lot must be approved by the Salisbury Planning Board and City Council, and the old service station needs to be demolished.
“I’m in the odd position of having to continue spending money on a project that may or may not happen,” Paris said.
If the new school board does not support the downtown location, the city needs to move on, he said.
“Have you ever heard the term fish or cut bait?” Councilman Brian Miller said.
Mayor Paul Woodson said Salisbury community and business leaders turned out in unison at the public hearing to support the downtown location.
Contact reporter Emily Ford at 704-797-4264.

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