School board puts off action to weigh county commissioners’ proposals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Last week, Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education Chairman Dr. Richard Miller called legal action an option in the school board’s ongoing budget dispute with county commissioners, and said he hoped the board would make a decision on that at a called meeting Tuesday.
After a 90-minute closed-door session with attorneys, however, the board took no action. Miller said that reflects the fact that commissioners have put two proposals on the table that are part of the budget negotiations.
Last week, the Board of Commissioners again offered $6 million for a new school system central office, as long as it’s not built at the site the school board has selected in downtown Salisbury.
And on Monday, the commissioners offered up to $22 million to build a new elementary school in western Rowan County that would consolidate two existing but aging elementary schools, Woodleaf and Cleveland.
That’s more than has been offered throughout the mediation that began after the two boards couldn’t agree on a budget in June.
“I don’t have a choice but to see it as progress at this point,” Miller said. “… I don’t think we’d be serving kids if we didn’t give this most recent proposal, in conjunction with last week’s proposal, a fair hearing.”
He said the board instructed attorney Richard Schwartz to respond to the county’s latest proposals. Schwartz recently represented the Union County school system when it won a $91 million judgement in a budget-fueled lawsuit against commissioners there.
Replacing Woodleaf and Cleveland — both of which date to the early 1900s — and either replacing or renovating Knox Middle School in Salisbury were among the capital needs expressed by the school board, along with a new central office.
The school board requested a new school to consolidate Woodleaf and Cleveland in 2008, but the plan was scrapped after residents in both communities adamantly opposed the proposal.
“I was just shocked when I read it in the paper, because I thought that was a dead issue,” Cleveland Principal Becky Kepley-Lee said.
Woodleaf still has the same problems it had in 2008 — among them only one working well that’s able to provide just enough water each day, an outdated septic system and a gymnasium that’s too far removed from the school.
Woodleaf Principal Sue Herrington said the district’s maintenance department “keeps our school in good order at all times” and students haven’t had to miss a day of school in her six years there due to water or septic problems.
She said the school is not having to truck in water, as commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce said on Monday.
Herrington said it would be nice to have a new facility and she thinks western Rowan residents would like one, but a consolidated school holding 750-800 students is going to be a tough sell.
“Both communities are attached to their community schools and enjoy having their community schools,” she said.
If the school board accepts commissioners’ proposal, they’ll get a chance to hear for themselves how residents feel about it at public hearings. Vice Chairwoman Kay Wright Norman said she hopes the communities will “look at it from the long-range standpoint.”
“The children deserve — the community deserves — the best we can provide, and a facility is part of that,” she said. She said problems at Woodleaf “cannot be permanently resolved, and since they can’t be permanently resolved, we have to be ready to do something.”
Miller, the school board chairman, said alternatives to building a new school might be redistricting and sending students to schools with surplus classroom space, possibly closing Cleveland and Woodleaf in the process.
“I think it’s incumbent that we make the best fiscal decision and one that also best serves kids,” he said.