So much for ‘no restrictions’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 5, 2013

“These funds have no restrictions.” So said the letter then-Chairman Chad Mitchell signed a year ago in support of financing $6 million for a new school central office. The letter failed to say that the letter had an expiration date.
Acting on that seemingly firm letter, the school board in good faith hired an architect to draw up the plans needed to get an estimate, essential to secure financing. That included redrawing the plans when estimates came in over $6 million. The preliminary work done in keeping with the letter from commissioners came to about $400,000.
The city of Salisbury, eager to land the project downtown, offered a site and parking. In good faith, the city started preparing the property. When workers discovered orphan fuel tanks and soil contamination — despite an earlier nod from state environmental officials — the city set about cleaning the site up. The total cost is expected to be about $500,000, of which the city has to pay $20,000. As commissioners would require, the city committed to complete the job before turning the site over to the county.
Yet no one was surprised Monday when commissioners voted not to move forward with financing for the school project. Opponents of the project had the perfect window of opportunity, an environmental snag that could hold up the project several months. It was just the excuse they needed to vote no, like a gift from heaven. Or somewhere else.
It was a gift, all right, an eye-opening gift to the voters of Rowan County who have learned just how far the county commission’s integrity goes — or at least its sell-by date. That date is the every-other-year election when Rowan voters choose their leaders. Even though the school board has reaffirmed its selection of the South Main Street site, and choosing the site is supposed to be that board’s responsibility, new commissioners Craig Pierce and Mike Caskey felt no duty to respect the commission’s 2012 letter of support. Chairman Jim Sides never respected it to begin with; he voted against the project last year.
This smells like a cop out. If they were truly committed to centralizing school offices, commissioners would have agreed to move forward with financing, contingent upon site cleanup. They could have waited to hear more from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. And they still could. But as the vote stands now, they’re throwing away nearly $400,000 of the schools’ money. Next they’ll complain that the system wastes money.
In place of the central office, commissioners offered two vacant county-owned buildings on West Innes and Mahaley Avenue. They kicked around possible uses for the buildings last month — business incubator, Board of Elections, storage. How about a further decentralized school office?
Commissioners have forced the school board into an impossible situation. In order to give its Long Street employees a sturdier, safer work place, the school board will have to splinter its administrative offices even more. Neither of the vacant county buildings is big enough. This gives the lie to lip service about recognizing the need for a central office.