All central office options on table School board members say it’s time for a decision, so they can move on to other matters

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 9, 2012

Three incoming Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education members say they plan to use the 60-day hold the Rowan County Board of Commissioners put on the downtown central office project to consider all options.

But Josh Wagner, Chuck Hughes and Susan Cox agree it’s time to make a decision and move on.

Another new board member, L.A. Overcash, who has been appointed to serve out the remainder of Mike Caskey’s term as he takes his newly won seat on the county board, is in favor of moving on with the plan to build a 48,000-square-foot facility for $6.3 million on South Main Street in Salisbury.

“We’ve already spent close to $400,000, it’s kind of stupid to throw that money away and go somewhere else,” he said.

Wagner said the move will allow the board to investigate several locations, including the downtown site, which he has opposed.

“I was a little surprised. I thought it would either be a yes or no vote,” he said. “It’s good they left the door open, but still gave us some time to look at other options.

“I want to look at everything from every angle and make sure we make a definitive decision before we go back to the commissioners.”

Hughes said although the current school board did “a lot of hard and diligent work” he doesn’t feel they considered all the options.

“I heard throughout my bid for the seat people saying they want to revisit, they don’t want the building in downtown Salisbury,” he said. “I said if it ever came back up I wanted to reconsider some of the places the maybe have not gotten due diligence and consideration.

“I thought there was enough dissension in the community that it deserved another look.”

But Hughes said he doesn’t want central office talks to drag on for another four years.

“We should look at it, we should discuss it for a final time, bring it to a conclusion and move on,” he said.

Cox agrees it’s time to move on.

“If they exist, I hope that politics or any personal agendas have been or will be removed from future deliberations concerning the central office building,” she said. “We have many important issues for the school board to address and 23 years is enough time to deliberate the building.

“I encourage all members to put forth every effort to search their consciences and do the right thing for resolution.”

The school board has agreed to seek a legal opinion about what steps they should take next in their quest for a central office.

The project was stalled Monday when the Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted 3-2 to put a hold on the proposal for a $6.3 million facility in downtown Salisbury.

During his first meeting as a commissioner, Craig Pierce made the motion to delay the project so the new county and school boards could meet to discuss it.

Chairman Jim Sides and Commissioner Mike Caskey agreed.

All three men have been critical of the downtown proposal.

Monday’s county board meeting included a public hearing in which about 40 people spoke about the proposal.

The purpose of the meeting was to determine whether or not the move forward with financing the project.

School systems are not allowed to borrow money, so the county would have to take out a loan on the district’s behalf. Those dollars would be paid back using sales tax funds that are allocated strictly for capital projects.

Holding off means the school system will likely have to re-bid the project, which was awarded to Summit Developers of Salisbury.

During a closed session at a called meeting Thursday, the current school board asked Gene Miller, the assistant superintendent who has been spearheading the central office project, to gather legal advice about how to move forward following the commissioners’ decision.

It’s unclear if they’ll turn to board attorney Don Sayers, who is based in Salisbury, or seek advice from an out-of-town firm such as Raleigh-based Tharrington Smith, which has worked with the district on the central office in the past.

Cox said the school board needs to consider all the options, but do so in a timely manner.

“We’ve got 60 days, so let’s get on with it,” she said. “Let’s resolve that we are going to come up with a resolution in that timeframe.”

Wagner told the Post in November that he’d like to reconsider the 315,000-square-foot Salisbury Mall as an option for the consolidated office. But he’s not so sure about the viability of that prospect now, noting it likely wouldn’t work to have retail and office space in the same structure.

“I would be interested to sit down and look at it in greater detail, but I will say on the surface I don’t think it’s a very real option,” Wagner said.

Mall owner Igal Namdar, a real estate developer in New York, has said he’d be willing to sell the entire shopping center or just the space Belk is currently leasing, but he hasn’t named a price.

The mall re-emerged as an option with the announcement that Belk will relocate to a new store at Julian Road next October.

Some have suggested buying Belk rather than the entire mall.

“Even if you were to get (Belk) at a good deal, the rest of the building is kind of at the mercy of the economy and retail,” Wagner said. “If that goes under, you’re still tied to a bigger facility.”

Hughes said he’d like the school board to take a second look at the Department of Social Services Building on West Innes Street and building near the school system’s transportation headquarters off Old Concord Road.

At 22,000 square feet the DSS building is big enough to replace much of the Long Street offices, which are 29,000 square feet, but not big enough to consolidate other offices.

The county commissioners have offered to donate that facility as a stopgap measure to get school employees out of the Long Street office, which poses safety threats and has infrastructure issues.

The school system owns 22 acres of land at its transportation headquarters.

“Some of the arguments for it being downtown were very shallow,” Hughes said. “We could find a better spot, I think we could get more for our dollar out of the city.”

Hughes calls for a “less elaborate, more functional” building design.

“If it goes downtown, I don’t see a lot of economic value,” he said.

Hughes said he doesn’t feel the downtown land, which was donated by the city of Salisbury, is large enough.

“We really have no options to build on,” he said.

The infrastructure to add enough space to house the exceptional children’s department has been stripped from the original design due to cost constraints.

“We will pretty much have to live with that forever unless a lot of money comes out of nowhere,” he said.

Overcash said building a new central office is his top priority, as a means to cut down on the wastefulness of operating five facilities.

“I just see it providing a big savings all around,” he said.

The district estimates it would save $200,000 a year by combining its offices and eliminating the cost of duplicated personnel, management and maintenance.

During his first term on the board from 1998 to 2002, Overcash said his top concern was building new schools and ensuring existing structures were sound.

“That’s all been taken care of, so it’s time to move on and get a central office,” he said.

Hughes said before money is invested in a new central office building, he wants to examine the school system’s capital needs.

“I’d be interested in looking at the physical properties that our kids are going to every day,” he said. “It would be nice to have new digs to hang our hats on, but there are a lot of other expenditures that we have to make.”

Hughes said he’d like to see the central office talks wrapped up soon.

“We either need to come to a decision or put it on hold,” he said. “It’s one of those issues I’m not sure there is a right or wrong way. It’s just personal opinion.”

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.