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School board member: Opponents to consolidation relying on emotion

SALISBURY —  School board member Chuck Hughes says Rowan County residents are opposed to a county-wide consolidation plan because they’re relying on emotion and nostalgia.

During a Rowan County Tea Party meeting on Tuesday, Hughes repeatedly stressed that the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education hasn’t voted to close six schools and is just starting conversation about the matter. At the same time, Hughes defended a consultant’s proposal which would shutter four elementary schools — Mount Ulla, Morgan, Faith and Enochville. Cleveland and Woodleaf elementary schools are already slated for closure. After deciding on closures, the school system would then alter attendance areas for the remaining 14 elementary schools.

Hughes called the proposal to shutter four schools “abstract thinking” and “looking down the road.”

“The plan is a good plan if you take out all the negatives, and there aren’t many negatives there,” he said. “Our goal is to consolidate one school district and that is Cleveland and Woodleaf. That’s all we’re planning on right now, but we need a long-term plan, and that’s why we are where we’re at now.”

Hughes said Rowan residents are opposed to the consolidation plan simply because they don’t want change.

“Some of them are opposed because of emotion and nostalgia,” he said.

He said the school system needs to proceed with plans to close Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools. Woodleaf, he said, has sewage, water and structural problems.

“Why not bring Cleveland in and consolidate them somewhere in the middle,” Hughes said.

Meeting attendees clarified the site for a consolidated Cleveland-Woodleaf school is not centrally located between the two communities. Attendees, however, extended criticism to all closure plans — those already finalized and the four newly proposed sites.

Local attorney Todd Paris, who formed a group to lead opposition to closure plans, characterized the plans as shuttering relatively high-performing schools and moving them closer to the city of Salisbury.

“What you’re doing is pushing high testers into Salisbury,” Paris said. “What you’re doing is absolutely, positively disrupting the most vulnerable of our students, which are elementary school students. This plan makes no sense.”

During part of his speech, Paris also criticized the central premise for consolidation — under-capacity schools. If a large manufacturing plant moves to Rowan County, Paris said the school system wouldn’t have to worry about building new facilities with under-capacity schools. Cabarrus County is dealing with the opposite problem, Paris said.

“Every time they move a factory in, they have to build another school,” he said.

Paris said he wouldn’t have led an effort in 2014 to oust former Rowan County commissioners chairman Jim Sides from office if he knew school consolidation would be favored by the school board in 2016. Paris said Sides wouldn’t stand by and allow consolidation to happen.

Despite his criticism, Rowan County commissioners don’t technically have the authority to stop school consolidation. Commissioners’ only allocate tax revenue for schools in the county, which includes the Kannapolis City Schools.

Some meeting attendees said students who are moved to different schools would spend a longer period of time on buses. Students might wake up before sunrise to catch a school bus and return home after sunset. Hughes responded by saying the school system should add more buses to its routes.

Former county commissioner candidate and businessman Chris Cohen also dished out criticism of school consolidation. However, Cohen focused on the location of the Cleveland-Woodleaf consolidated school. Cohen noted the school board’s selected site for the school is adjacent to a power plant that caught fire on Monday night. Cohen and other meeting attendees questioned how students might be affected when the consolidated school is open.

Hughes responded to Cohen’s question by dishing out a personal attack.

“If you’re unhappy with it, I’m sorry,” Hughes said. “I’m sorry that your business went out of business.”

It sparked a brief, heated moment between Cohen and Hughes. Red in the face, Cohen stood up, approached Hughes and asked how school consolidation related to his private business.

Rowan resident Elaine Hewitt interjected and asked whether the school board would do a more thorough analysis before making a final decision.

“Before any decision is made we’ll have all the answers to the questions,” Hughes said in response. “Our priority right now is Woodleaf and Cleveland.”

The consolidation process for Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools is already under way. Rowan County commissioners are scheduled to provide money to build the consolidated school later this year, according to a 2014 mediation agreement. Before commissioners are able to provide the funding for consolidation, the school system must submit bids for construction and drawings of the new building.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246.

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