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Cook column: After central office, other needs await

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is nearly ready to break ground on the central office on North Main Street.

As new school board members and county commissioners take office this month, let’s hope they let the central office’s construction proceed so they can turn their attention to other important capital needs — replacing Knox Middle School and building a consolidated elementary school for Woodleaf and Cleveland.

Surely elected officials can take action on Knox and the west school faster than the 25 years it took to settle the central office issue. But it won’t be easy.

The school board has been wrestling with the west elementary school for several years. In 2008, the school board voted to make the combined school its top building priority, but both communities effectively said, “No thanks.”

The people of Cleveland and Woodleaf mobilized against losing their neighborhood schools, and who can blame them? A consolidated school might cut some administrative costs and give teachers and students a brand new building, but they would lose something at the same time.

At the time, school officials said constructing a single school would cost much less — about $20.9 million for one school as opposed to more than $31 million for two.

Then there’s the Knox project. In 2007, parents protested that replacing Knox ranked 12th out of 13 projects the system had on its list of major capital needs. With 57 exterior entrances and other design challenges, the city’s only middle school deserved to be much higher on the list, they said.

Still, there’s no consensus yet on how to do this — remodel the existing campus, rebuild on that site or build somewhere else?

The first concrete step toward addressing Knox’s building needs came as commissioners and the school board inked their remediation agreement late last year. Commissioners committed to support $40 million in spending for three projects — the central office, Knox and the west elementary school.

Let’s get on with it. Construction costs are rising.

Building disputes did not begin with the central office, and they won’t end there.

County commissioners went through considerable wrangling before they agreed in 2008 to spend $6 million remodeling and expanding space next to the Health Department to create a new home for the Department of Social Services.

At one point architect Bill Burgin presented commissioners with schematics for a 61,000-square-foot structure estimated to cost $7.1 million. Sandra Wilkes, Social Services director at the time, told commissioners the design was based on a very detailed and accurate assessment of the needs of the departments’ 189 employees and would be conducive to good work.

But commissioners gave the plan a chilly reception.

“We have $5.1 million. If we can’t do it for that, it won’t happen,” said Arnold Chamberlain, then chairman of the county commission.

Eventually commissioners came around and the $6 million project broke ground in March 2009.

Now, five years later, two things are happening that put the past and current debates in perspective:

1. Commissioners and Social Services board members say the department has outgrown its new space. (Chamberlain said recently that he never would have imagined the agency growing so quickly.) Social Services is now a prime candidate for moving to the county-owned mall, if permitting and a space needs study fall into place.

2. While $6 million provided Social Services with spartan space in 2009 that now is recognized as inadequate, critics roll their eyes and cry “Taj Mahal” at spending $7 million on a school system building to hold offices for about 200 employees.

The Rowan-Salisbury School System has gone without a true central office for all of its 25 years. Finally, the plans are drawn, the site identified and other details are coming together. Let’s be good stewards of the money that has been spent on this project and see it through.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post. 




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