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School system hopes careful planning will help overcome decades of facility needs neglect

Over the past two decades, the Rowan-Salisbury School System’s capital needs have quietly multiplied as they’ve been put on the back burner year after year.

But with a new administration in place and a new board of county commissioners, these needs have been brought into the spotlight once again.

The district’s capital needs grow every day, as HVAC systems get older, new cracks form in parking lots, roofs begin to leak in different places and the buildings undergo normal wear and tear.

The cost of these needs is a “moving target,” said Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann.

As of May 8, the cost to remedy all those needs stood at more than $118 million. Each time something deteriorates, breaks or stops working, that figure increases.

A new approach

This year, the district decided to approach its capital needs in a new way.

Vann, who has been with the school system a little over a year, believes that thorough planning is vital if they ever want to get all of their facilities up-to-date.

“When I first got here, we just had one pot of money for capital projects,” he said. “It was used throughout the year for whatever items came up or were deemed necessary.”

In order to develop a plan to address the school system’s capital needs, Vann, the school board and district administrators must have a thorough understanding of what those needs are.

Right now, there are three different in-depth long-term needs studies going on across the district. These studies look at the condition of the district’s facilities, roofs and parking lots; the demographics and growth trends in Rowan County and facility usage across the district. They will give Vann and his team a comprehensive overview of the district’s needs so they can develop a long-term plan to address those needs.

“Really the only way we can move forward properly is knowing what we have and need right now,” Vann said.

“We try to have a concrete plan and be very specific about what funding is going toward,” he said. “If we know ahead of time and we can do it in smaller chunks, it’s easier to come up with funding.”

The district is also seeking feedback from employees, parents, students and community members through Thought Exchange, an online discussion-based survey.

District leaders hope to reach more people and hear more opinions through Thought Exchange than they could at a board meeting or town hall meeting.

“We send it out to thousands of people,” Vann said. “It gives us more of a true picture of what the community is looking for and what they expect.”

The needs

The Rowan-Salisbury School System’s needs are broken into seven major categories or projects – athletic capital, asphalt paving, roofing, safety, Knox Middle School, a consolidated elementary school in the western part of the county and annual general maintenance capital.

Athletic capital makes up $3 million of that number, and includes projects such as lighting for fields; renovations and upgrades to field houses, concession stands and dugouts and field repairs.

The district’s long-term paving and roofing studies revealed $11,330,439 in paving and $15 million in roofing needs.

The studies are “very involved,” Vann said, explaining that teams went out to each site, took photos, walked every roof and parking lot, ranked the conditions and compiled binders documenting each site. “It’s really a hands-on evaluation.”

“We feel real good about our surveys we’ve had done so far,” Vann said, adding that he feels they’re accurate.

The district also needs $7 million to complete safety upgrades across the county for vestibules, cameras, control door access and panic buttons.

For many years, upfitting or rebuilding Knox Middle School has been a top priority of the district.

Knox is a “campus style” school, and is comprised of multiple buildings. Students travel from building to building throughout the day as they change classes.

“The multiple buildings are harder to control safety-wise than if it’s all in one building,” Vann said. “The way we teach now and how we operate our schools is much different than 20, 30, 40 years ago.”

The middle school located in the heart of Salisbury also “has a lot of facility issues,” he added.

It’s expected to cost $25 million to rebuild Knox Middle School.

Building a new elementary school in the western part of the county is the district’s No. 1 building priority right now.

The school, which will consolidate Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools, is attached to a $27 million price tag.

Woodleaf and Cleveland are “aged facilities,” Vann said. “They’re beyond their life expectancy.”

Both schools are highly inefficient and have structural issues. Woodleaf Elementary also has water and sewer problems.

Building a consolidated school “takes our students out of those facilities” and saves the district “very close to a million a year,” Vann said.

Each year, the district also incurs between $5-6 million in general capital expenses for repairs and upkeep of its buildings. Over the past few years, the district has been allotted less than it needs to keep its facilities up to date.

Each principal submits a form every year listing their school’s top three facility needs for that school year. Vann, Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody and Chief Financial Officer Tara Trexler then sit down with each principal to discuss their capital needs requests.

This year, the needs totaled just under $6 million, and ranged from $14,500 at Shive Elementary for outdoor speakers to $481,000 at Salisbury High for gym flooring, replacement windows and doors, athletic field lights and HVAC replacements. Many of these projects include replacing carpets, windows or bringing playgrounds up to Americans with Disabilities Act standards.

If the county is unable to provide $6 million for these repairs, Vann and his team will have to pare down the projects to only the most urgent.

Vann said those will be “hard decisions.”

Funding

In North Carolina, state money cannot be used to fund capital projects. Instead, local sales tax money is used to pay for capital needs.

“The amount of money we spend on schools is a tremendous percentage of our total budget,” said Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners.

The commissioners need to find a “reasonable, acceptable solution” to “satisfy school’s capital needs without destroying the economic development opportunities” of the county, he added.

“We understand both are important,” Edds said. “Education is a key player in our economic development strategy. It can’t be ignored.”

Edds said the commissioners have been “very encouraged” that the school system is taking a look at its needs and devising a long-term plan.

“They are prioritizing their needs to match available revenues,” he said.

“We recognize the schools have significant need. They recognize the county has significant limitations,” Edds said, adding that the understanding is a “refreshing change.”

He pointed out that some of those needs can be addressed with the $40.5 million the school system received through the mediated settlement with the county last year.

He suggested that the school system use the remaining $34 million from the settlement for the next five years while the county continues to pay off the debt from previous capital projects.

In 2020, a large chunk of that money will be paid off.

“It will free up a tremendous amount of debt,” Edds said.

He added that he feels five to six years is a “pretty aggressive” timetable to address needs that have cumulated over several decades.

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