Editorial: School consolidation no slam dunk

Published 9:45 am Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is doing the responsible thing by reviewing the cost of operating schools with an eye toward consolidation. Funds are too precious to waste on energy inefficiency and staff duplication.

Board members should proceed slowly and look beyond the numbers, though. Consolidation is not a slam dunk. You cannot assign a dollar value to the strong bonds between schools and the families and communities they serve. Handling this process the wrong way could throw the county into turmoil. That, in turn, would undermine support for the school system. 

Dr. Lynn Moody, superintendent, is well aware. “You can never underestimate the power of emotions when they’re tied to schools,” she says.

The numbers do point to a need to streamline. Rowan-Salisbury has 33 traditional schools with total capacity of 23,732 students and enrollment of roughly 20,322, according to figures supplied by the system. (The middle and high school enrollment figures from the system are two years old.) That leaves some 3,410 seats empty — more than 14 percent. That’s too many. 

So far, the board has talked about weighing those numbers — plus building age and energy efficiency — as they consider which schools might close and where a larger, consolidated school would succeed. There are other factors to consider, though, such as students’ needs. Putting together two small schools with high percentages of at-risk students to create a big one with the same challenges would be a mistake, for example. Small schools are preferable in some cases.

School board member Travis Allen says the system has 10 schools too many; he may be overstating the case. Close 10 schools and enrollment at the remaining 23 would average around 884 — bigger than all of the existing elementary schools and all but one of the middle schools. Only high schools tend to be bigger.

There may also be schools where investing in repairs and updates would be more practical than busing students farther to a new school. Old does not have to mean outdated. Besides, the county already has an abundance of former school buildings looking for new uses.

Consolidation has costs, too — transportation, the loss of choice and control, and impact on the community. Look no further than Cleveland and Woodleaf for proof of that. They will grieve over the loss of their longstanding neighborhood schools. Woodleaf’s water problems got so severe that something had to be done. People know it in their heads but that doesn’t change their hearts.