School consolidation a hot topic at Republican breakfast

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 3, 2016

By Mark Wineka

SALISBURY — The prospects of school consolidation dominated discussion Saturday at the Rowan County Republican Breakfast Club, and school board member Travis Allen made it clear the future of longstanding schools will have to debated.

A consolidation of Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools into a new facility on a new site already is scheduled for the fall of 2017. It may be the first of several  instances where old schools, with low enrollments and high maintenance costs, must be closed, according to Allen.

Most every community in Rowan County has a school, usually an elementary school, but Allen said some of those facilities are quite old and have less than 300 students.

“Is it financially responsible?” he asked, citing a recent study showing Rowan County’s elementary schools as 2,000 students under capacity.

Copies of that report are available to the public at the Wallace Educational Forum, he said. The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education plans a discussion on consolidation this coming week and also plans to conduct “Town Hall” type meetings with the community later, Allen added.

Every consolidation would lead to $500,000 in savings, Allen said, and that kind of savings could be used to pay on the debt service of a new school. He thinks that any new school built in the future should only be done if it represents the consolidation of at least two to three older schools.

A resident of the West Rowan area, Allen said he can drive to seven different schools in 10 minutes from his front door. And of those seven schools, five have low enrollments, he said.

N.C. Rep. Carl Ford, R-Rowan, said consolidation is something “you have to talk about.”

“It’s going to have to happen,” said Ford, a former county commissioner, describing some schools as “half-empty” with buildings that are 80 and 90 years old.

“I think the taxpayers have to get more bang for their buck.”

Members of the audience raised some questions about consolidation. Dr. Ada Fisher, running for re-election as a Republican National Committeewoman, said black students and their parents always seem to lose out when consolidations occur.

Most parents want a sense of community, and schools are part of that, she said. Schools in African-American neighborhoods also have lost their names and identities in past consolidations, Fisher said.

“You haven’t convinced me,” Larry Jones said of the case for consolidations. He said he would want to hear how consolidation is providing students with a better education.

Greg Edds, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said he appreciated the discussion on consolidation and described it as a great thing for taxpayers that the school board “is getting its house in order.”

In another breakfast topic related to schools, Rowan County Commissioner Craig Pierce said he would like to see the Rowan-Salisbury system broaden its approach and redesign its curriculum so kids are walking out the doors at graduation with more than their diplomas — and not just college as an option.

Allen said some good vocational programs already are in place in a few schools, but he would like students to have the chance to become certified in things such as masonry, welding, auto mechanics and HVAC.

The state directs a lot of vocational training to community colleges, but some of it needs to be pushed back to high school, Fisher said.

Edds made a strong pitch for magnet and academy programs in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and said Rowan County had the least of these kinds of offerings when compared to the counties around it. He read a long list of course and program offerings elsewhere that are not available to Rowan students and described the county as “behind the cutting edge.”

Edds thinks the Board of Education should take one of the existing schools and make it a magnet or high-technical school.

Charles Patton said the school system’s Early College model is working for students enrolled in that program. He said a Canadian model for academics and a German model for engineering also work and should be investigated.

“I can say in normal schools they waste a lot of time,” Patton added.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.