Mapping Rowan schools’ future

Published 12:00 am Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is considering a scenario that would involve boarding up six district elementary schools, cutting the total number from 20 to 15, once the new western elementary school is accounted for.

Should the board run with the scenario, Mt. Ulla, Morgan, Faith and Enochville elementaries would be shuttered.

And while the number may be new, the debate is not. It’s a controversy that began eight years ago, when a previous board put out feelers for merging Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools, citing old buildings with water and sewer issues. Community outcry quickly shut down the conversation.

But in 2014, the board pushed through with the merger — opting to go through with the plan and get community input later. Two years later, that community meeting is just being held, scheduled for April 28 at West Rowan High School.

In a Jan. 11 board meeting, board member Travis Allen declared that the school system had “about 10 schools too many.” Since then, the district has laid out its case for consolidating more schools: a system of derelict and rapidly aging buildings that are energy inefficient and incur high maintenance costs and, according to a long range facilities plan submitted to the board in January, 1,802 empty seats.

The board asked a third party, the Operations Research and Education Laboratory with N.C. State University, to run a population forecast for children entering elementary school in Rowan County, and to look at student placement county wide.

Thursday the organization came back with the numbers: based on the number of local live births, the number of students entering local elementary schools was expected to decline over the next five years. The presentation also highlighted elementary schools that are under capacity and showed that the majority of the county’s student population was concentrated along the Interstate 85 corridor.

Using this information, plus some gathered by SfL+a Architects during the long range facilities plan, the two organizations made the recommendation to close the four additional schools.

It’s a proposal the board is considering, but does not have to accept. However, many board members have expressed that they feel consolidation is a necessity.

Built before 1950

Rowan-Salisbury Schools currently has 20 elementary schools, 11 of which were built before 1950. Closing the old buildings would save the system $500,000 per school each year. It’s money that could be put towards keeping up the other buildings or towards new programs.

“We need the money,” Wagner said at Thursday’s retreat.

Closing the four additional schools would save the system $2 million. But the buildings named in the scenario are not the system’s oldest buildings – or even the ones in the worst condition.

Robert Kimball, a research associate with the laboratory, said that his organization ran the scenario based on seat capacity and student proximity. Moving toward energy efficiency is something that the board would have to take into consideration, later, should they accept the scenario.

Closing the four schools would also redraw attendance zones and, total, call for the shuffling of more than 4,000 students. When it was done, every elementary school would be operating at nearly 100 percent utilization.

Angry comments

But the proposal drew a firestorm of angry comments on social media. Parents and teachers alike questioned the need for consolidation, citing already overcrowded classrooms and the long drives that would be necessary for some students under the proposed attendance zones.

“I just hope that the school board knows that word is traveling fast. They have fight on their hands!” Kara Ruhnow, a parent, said on Twitter.

Sierra Howard, another mother, spoke up on Facebook.

“This is horrible. Shame on anyone who thinks this is a good idea,” she said, “Faith Elementary is crowded enough. The entire first grade is in trailers for pete’s sake! Obviously Rowan … has zero interest in building our area up and making it a desirable place to live for new (people) … let alone the (people) currently living here. I’d rather leave Rowan for the better of my child than toss my son into an even more crowded classroom.”

Other commenters questioned the construction of the central office and the purchase of laptops and iPads for students if the system is in bad need of funds. And still others spoke on the important role of community schools.

“Elementary schools are NEIGHBORHOOD entities. They insure a sense of community, & provide a comfortable, close-to-home environment for little children leaving the nest. And to take away from the children after building a Taj Mahal for a bloated staff who have the least direct input into education?! What an unconscionable, despicable slap in the face to the parents already facing the subpar education offered in this county,” Franda Raymer said on Facebook.

Suzanne Corriher White pointed out that the closings would not fix the system’s plethora of old buildings.

“Ironically they are thinking of closing some of the schools with the best test scores! All to save money on aging buildings. So let’s send them to equally old buildings and make them even more overcrowded. Great idea!!” she said in a Facebook comment.

In September, the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction released a data report that showed 19 out of 35 schools in the Rowan-Salisbury system received a D or F letter grade on an evaluation of performance. The four elementary schools set up for the potential cut all received C rankings. Mt. Ulla was the highest rated school for math in the district, and Faith did the same in reading.

After the report, Rowan-Salisbury was labeled a low-performing school district.

Currently, the board has made no decisions regarding the proposed plan. They could decide against closing the four schools, or reject the scenario entirely. The board will discuss the proposal further at their April 25 business meeting.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.