Board votes to move ahead with central office project downtown

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, December 18, 2012

EAST SPENCER — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education answered Salisbury City Council’s request to affirm plans to build its central office downtown in resounding fashion Monday.
The board voted 5-2 to move ahead with plans for a 62,000 square-foot facility on South Main Street and ask the city to help provide additional funds for the project.
New board members Chuck Hughes and Josh Wagner cast the dissenting votes.
The project had been scaled down to about 49,000 square feet, which is too small to house the school system’s exceptional children’s department and support future growth, due to the constraints of a $6 million budget set by the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.
“If we’re going to build something, we ought to be asking to build what we need so that everybody can be in one place in one location,” said newly-elected Chairman Dr. Richard Miller.
It will cost an estimated $2 million more to build the larger structure.
The school board plans to approach the city for assistance before looking at other options outlined by Miller.
Miller suggested applying for grants or tapping the school system’s fund balances.
The current fund balance has $3.5 million, representing about 2 percent of the district’s $180 million operating budget.
Miller pointed out the Local Government Commission recommends school systems keep at least 5 percent of operating expenses in a fund balance.
The district also has a fund balance for capital projects, which currently has $2 million.
Miller also suggested approaching a benevolent group like the Blanche & Julian Robertson Family Foundation.
He said the county commissioners are also welcome to donate the money.
“They have a $20 million fund balance on their books, they could write a check to us today for $6 million or $8 million and there wouldn’t have to be a loan or any interest,” he said.
It was Hughes’ suggestion to ask the city for the money.
“If it benefits the city as much as the city is pushing it, why doesn’t the city pitch in and take care of that other $2 million,” he said.
Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said he’s delighted the school board still wants to build downtown.
“I’m really pleased with that 5-2 vote,” he said. “We don’t have $2 million to take out to give them, but I’m for whatever we can do to make it happen.”
Woodson said he’s interested in gathering the “brainpower of the city” together, including elected officials, philanthropists and business leaders to come up with a solution.
“We certainly would look at all options and be very positive toward anything we can do to help promote the project,” he said.
The city has already donated the land for the project and plans to provide parking.
The school board plans to host a meeting at 5 p.m. Jan. 3 with stakeholders, including City Council and the county commissioners. The meeting, held at the Long Street office in East Spencer, is open to the public.
“It is important that we have a working, worthwhile, cooperative and supportive relationship among all the stakeholders,” Miller said. “We have to have those face-to-face conversations, we have to not be having back door conversations…”
County commissioners had agreed to loan the school system $6 million for the central office project, but voted earlier this month to hold off for 60 days so the four new school board members could weigh in.
School systems are not permitted to take out loans, that’s why the county would need to secure the funds, which would be paid back with sales tax revenue generated specifically for capital building projects.
Miller said he wants to send a clear message that the central office is the school board’s project.
“We will be directing and driving it,” he said.
Although Hughes and Wagner agree the school system needs a central office, both men voted against moving forward with the downtown project.
“I don’t see that site downtown on South Main as being a prime location,” Hughes said. “I see a lot of negatives.”
Hughes has suggested building the structure next to Isenberg Elementary on land owned by the school system.
Miller came to Monday’s meeting with a list of potential pitfalls with the location, including the cost of a new plan development, road improvements and installation of water and sewer systems.
“If we moved to Isenberg we’re talking about adding $2.1 million to the price tag,” he said. “Is it sound fiscal policy to commit $2.1 million when we don’t have to?”
Wagner said he can’t support the project because of the need for several new schools such as Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary and upgrades to others.
“What I will say, and it’s something that I have heard from a lot of folks, is that to build a building where it is with the current project, the current outline, you’re going to have a central office there made up of multiple millions of dollars and you’re still going to have a large number of schools in the county not up to par with the central office,” he said. “Granted, I understand you’re always going to have a building to build or a building to upfit, but I think folks look at this and they question the timing.”
Wagner said he’d like to hold off on the project for at least another two years when bond debt is paid off, freeing up $2.5 million in capital funds each year.
But Miller said after discussing the central office project for 23 years, it’s time to act.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said. “There will always be another facility to look at, we could spend another 23 years looking at another 23 properties.”
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.