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A county in denial — and mediation

Jim Sides is right; the discussions going on behind closed doors during mediation over school funding should be public, not secret.
But Sides himself, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, helped shut the door by being bull-headed. To some extent, so did school board Chair Richard Miller. They created an atmosphere in which the usual “working group” outlined in state mediation law — the board chairmen and key personnel — would be dysfunctional.
Since the law gives the boards power to choose their own mediation teams, they chose themselves. And, under the legal cover of the mediation law and attorney-client privilege, a debate about as much as $30 million in taxpayers’ money is allowed to go on behind closed doors.

We’re in a heck of a mess. At the rate mediation is going, the school board could wind up suing the county over funding.
Meanwhile in the General Assembly, the county is maneuvering to get control of the school system’s buildings.
And on South Main Street, prep work continues on a school central office site that the county is against and may yet have the final word on.
The final word will be “no,” if that’s the case.
They’ll give a reason for rejecting the plan; they have lots of them. A timeline shows how creative commissioners are at turning down sites:
2005: Contaminated, commissioners say of the former Bendix building.
2006: “In two years, I’ll talk to you about a new building,” Sides says. (In two years he lost re-election.)
2008: Show us the figures, commissioners say of the former Winn-Dixie building.
2010: No way, they say about Cornerstone Church property. There’s no money.
2011: Ridiculous, they say of a private developer’s plan for a central office.
2012: The current downtown proposal has inspired commissioners to pull out a new objection every time one is resolved. Too big. Too small. Too expensive. Too environmentally risky. And, once again, wait two years. (That has more to do with elections than bond payments.)
2013: Sure, we’re glad the city will help the school board finally get a central office. Meanwhile, we want the state to give us control of all school buildings and building projects.
Sides & Co. either are trying to mislead us or they’re in denial.
Into this history steps Miller, as the new school board chairman. How is he expected to react when the commission cuts school funding for general expenses and leaves it flat for capital expenses?
For the first time, the school board is standing its ground and legally challenging the budget.
The school board asked for too much; the county allocated too little. There’s lots of room in there for compromise. The public should have a right to know what solutions have been offered in these closed sessions and why they’ve been rejected.

There’s a movement afoot to talk down the school board. In an on-air call to WSTP, Rep. Carl Ford said commissioners can make wiser school-building decisions, and he gave the example of Carson High School. Some people don’t think the county needed that high school, Ford said. He forgets that South and East were overflowing when the decision to build Carson was made — with commissioners’ approval, by the way.
In a letter to the editor, former school board member Dr. Ada Fisher said enrollment in Rowan-Salisbury schools has fallen by 4,000 students in recent years. She was 25 percent right. According to state and school data from, 1998 to 2013 enrollment declined by about 1,000.
The county’s population is falling; that’s a fact. We’re all waiting to see what commissioners will do to entice more people to live here.

Numerous strands have twisted into a Gordian knot of conflict between the county and the school board, a knot that defies untangling: the county’s push for ownership of the schools, the budget challenge, overages on past school building projects, the county’s central office objections, a school official’s unsuccessful run for commissioner, the county’s refusal to raise taxes as planned for bonds, the school board’s alliance with the city to build the office, city-county distrust over everything from airport de-annexation to the high bill the county received for a city-county project; a new city manager working issues behind the scenes, Sides’ personal history of acrimony toward the city, suing over six skinny trees a surveying crew cut down on his property … and so on.
Rowan needs more than a mediator to cut through all that history and bring people together. We need a positive leader.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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