‘Save our schools:’ Community rallies to fight closures

Published 12:15 am Friday, April 15, 2016

By Rebecca Rider


SALISBURY — The first speaker is August Spencer, a kindergartner at Morgan Elementary. His message is short — and it’s also printed on his blue shirt.

“Morgan School’s lives matter, and you cannot shut us down,” he says.

The crowd seated on the concrete stadium steps cheers.

Parents and community members rallied Thursday night in opposition to a proposal that would shutter six county elementary schools. Led by lawyer and former City Council candidate Todd Paris, the group met at the Rowan County fairgrounds and held an hour-long public comment session before voting to form a political action committee: Rowan Rural Save Our Schools.

The move comes after an April 7 Board of Education retreat where a consulting firm proposed a plan that would close four of the system’s elementary schools: Mt. Ulla, Enochville, Morgan and Faith. Cleveland and Woodleaf elementaries were already slated to be consolidated into a new, western elementary school set to open in 2017. The board has made no decision to move forward with any closings, but the proposal sparked a flurry of commentary and criticism on social media.

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Members of the Rowan Rural Save Our Schools secret Facebook group, started by Paris, banded together to hold last night’s community meeting. The Facebook group has nearly 5,000 members, and approximately 100 came to Thursday’s meeting. The group was initially scheduled to meet at Faith Elementary, but switched locations after they were forbidden the use of the school by Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, Paris alleged. He said the attempt tread on first amendment rights.

“They’re not acting very much like public servants,” he said. “They’re acting like public masters.”

Paris then ceded the microphone to anyone from the crowd who wished to speak.

“Tonight, our goal is to put you in the driver’s seat,” he said.

The group was largely made up of families: parents and children sat on the steps, wearing red, holding signs or boasting shirts printed with their school name. Mike Lyerly has a daughter in kindergarten at Morgan, and attended the school himself, back in the day.

“I think we need to make a point here and we need to be heard,” he said, before the start of the meeting.

But students were the first ones to speak. Spencer, and then sixth grader Fransisco Serda after him. Serda attends Southeast Middle, but went to Faith for elementary school. He currently has two younger sisters at Faith.

“I’d really hate for them to shut Faith and other schools down,” he said. “It’s just not right.”

Other speakers said that some of the schools were still in good shape. The current Mt. Ulla building opened in 1994, and Morgan had an addition built as recently as 2000. According to the consulting firm, the schools were chosen to help concentrate attendance zones along the I-85 corridor and ensure full use of the remaining 14 schools. Age and state of the buildings were not taken into account.

Others commented on the importance of community schools. One woman said Faith Elementary was an important part of the town’s history. The Faith Fourth of July fair is held on its grounds every year.

“Without Faith Elementary, without the grounds for that, Faith is not Faith,” she said.

Cleveland town commissioners spoke about a parcel of land they’d offered the Board of Education for the new western elementary school. Building the school in Cleveland would have saved the system approximately $1.2 million in water and sewage main constructions. The board, already under contract for a property at the corner of N.C. Highway 801 and Godbey Road, declined to consider it. In an interview before the meeting, Cleveland Commissioner Travis Summitt said that he could understand wanting to save money, but alleged if that was the case, the board would have considered the Cleveland parcel.

“That tells me if they don’t want to save $1.5 million, they’re not interested in saving,” he said.

Summitt said Cleveland has been fighting “tooth and nail” to keep their community school. The town’s middle school was closed some years ago, and Summitt commented on the important role schools play in attracting new businesses. To take a school away is “like a slow death to a community,” he said.

But the two concerns, echoed over and over, were class size and bus routes. Despite the 1,802 empty seats listed in a capacity study done by SfL+a Architects, many schools still have mobile units, speakers said. Parents said classes were already crowded, and worried that with the shuffling required to balance the closure of four additional schools, class sizes would only grow.

Natasha Fink has a daughter at Morgan Elementary, and said she moved from Huntersville so that her children could attend small, community schools.

“I moved from that area to give my daughter a better education,” she said.

Fink has another child, a son who currently attends Erwin Middle School. She said he went through elementary and the first year of middle school in Mecklenburg County’s larger schools and did poorly. But he excelled in a smaller school.

“My son wakes up every day wanting to go to school,” she said.

Fink also mentioned the long bus rides that would be required to send a child from the eastern edge of the county to Rockwell Elementary, which would largely absorb Morgan’s attendance zone in the proposal.

“What type of life is that for these kids?” she asked ” . . . It makes no sense to me to sacrifice the life of an innocent child that has no say so, just to save money.”

After public comment, the group voted to form the political action committee “Rowan Rural Save Our Schools,” and chose officers. Todd Paris was voted president and former candidate for the 77th district Andrew Poston voted vice-president. Poston said there was a “99.9 percent chance” that he’d run for the Board of Education this fall.

Paris then had attendees from each school choose a spokesperson, who will serve on the committee’s Board of Directors.

Paris led the crowd in a chant of, “save our schools” and encouraged them to attend the Board of Education’s April 28 community meeting at 6:30 p.m. at West Rowan High School. The meeting will discuss the consolidation of Cleveland and Woodleaf.

The board will discuss also discuss the proposal at its April 25 business meeting in the Wallace Educational Forum board room.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.