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Elementary school closure proposal Q and A

By Rebecca Rider

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

Q: I’ve been hearing a lot about school closures — what’s that about?

A: On April 7, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education heard a theoretical scenario that examines what the district would look like if a total of six elementary schools are closed.

The plan also involves the construction of a new school and redrawing attendance zones for the remaining elementary schools — a task that would involve shuffling nearly 4,000 students.

Q: Which schools are mentioned in the proposal?

A: Morgan, Faith, Mt. Ulla and Enochville. Cleveland and Woodleaf elementaries were already scheduled for closure.

Q: So they’re definitely closing these schools?

A: No. It was a theoretical scenario, and no decisions have been made. The Board of Education could decide to adjust the scenario or scrap it entirely.

Q: Why does the board want to close schools?

A: According to capacity numbers, the district has about 1,800 empty seats in elementary schools. A long-range facilities plan done by SfL+a Architects also said that many of the system’s elementary schools are old buildings or are energy inefficient. The Board of Education has stated it does not have the money to maintain them.

The board decided to explore school consolidation as a possible solution to these problems.

Q: But Mt. Ulla isn’t old, and Morgan just got a new HVAC system — why are they naming schools that don’t have issues?

A: The schools were not chosen because of their condition — they were named because this scenario was the easiest way to theoretically balance numbers across the district. SfL+a Architects actually ran six different scenarios, but only chose to present one of them.

The criteria looked at in this scenario was to concentrate schools in areas of high student populations — while still having the majority of students attend a school close to their home — and ensuring that all schools were being used to capacity.

Q: How can schools be under capacity when Morgan and Faith have so many mobile units?

A: Morgan and Faith are both nearly at capacity. But the same is not true for other schools in the district. Seven of the system’s twenty elementary schools are about 100 students under capacity.

According to SfL+a, Overton, Rockwell and Mt. Ulla elementaries are the most under-capacity schools in the county – with 78 percent or less of their space being used efficiently. All three schools were more than 100 students under capacity at the time of the study.

Q: What do you mean by under capacity? Where are these numbers coming from?

A: Capacity numbers are determined by comparing the number of students a building was built to hold with the number of students actually enrolled.

Space provided by mobile units was not taken into account in a school’s potential total capacity.

Q: Where are all the kids going?

A: According to the Operations Research and Education Laboratory, Rowan County has a declining live birth rate. Robert Kimball, a researcher with the laboratory, did not return multiple phone calls. According to Assistant Superintendent Anthony Vann, the birth rate is determined by a parent’s county of residence, regardless of where a child was born.

The U.S. Census shows that since 2010, there has been a decline in children six years old and under and in children between the ages of 11 and 17. Since 2010 there has been 3.5 percent increase in children between the ages of six and 11.

According to census data, in 2014 nearly 10 percent of all school-aged children in Rowan County attend private school — the highest percentage listed between 2010 and 2014.

Q: Why does this plan seem like it’s targeting rural schools?

A: One of the criteria considered when running scenarios was student population density. This plan concentrates the most schools where the majority of the county’s students live — along the Interstate 85 corridor.

County areas around Morgan, Woodleaf, Enochville and Mt. Ulla elementaries have 15 or fewer students per square mile, according to the laboratory’s study.

Q: Where are these numbers coming from?

A: SfL+a and the laboratory could not be reached for comment. According to Vann, SfL+a drew their data from personal inspections of all system elementary schools. The laboratory pulled capacity numbers from Rowan-Salisbury Schools, the Department of Public Instruction. Other data was taken from county and state records or interviews with local planning, inspections and economic development departments.

Q: What does the board have to gain by closing schools?

A: The board has stated that the district will save roughly $500,000 in operating costs for each school closed. Assistant Superintendent of operations Anthony Vann said savings would come primarily from utility costs and staff cuts.

Closing four extra schools would save the school system approximately $2 million.

Q: What maintenance issues do the schools have?

A: According to an e-mail sent out by Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody, the system has nearly $30 million in immediate maintenance needs. This includes a $15 million need for roofing, Vann said. The system also has approximately $11 million in paving needs and a significant safety and security need, including installing cameras and vestibules in schools and fixing safety hazards.

Woodleaf Elementary only has one working well, as well as septic system issues.

Q: Morgan just got a new HVAC system at the beginning of the school year. How is it inefficient?

A: According to Vann, SfL+a’s assessment was done before the new system installation. At the time, it cost approximately $1.54 per square foot to heat and cool the school. Vann said the number has since been amended, and the school likely costs approximately $1.25 to heat and cool under the new system.

Q: What about transportation and the length of bus routes?

A: Transportation is a concern that has been mentioned by Board of Education members at meetings, but they have not yet looked at drive times in regards to this proposal.

According to Rowan-Salisbury Public Information Officer Rita Foil, the district does not yet have information on how long bus routes would be if the proposal is accepted. A request made for this information was not received before date of publication.

Q: What about all those mobile units?

A: Faith has four first grade classes — the entire grade — in mobile units. All three of Morgan’s fifth-grade classes are in mobile units. According to Vann, the system has more than 80 mobile units still located at schools. Enochville Elementary has 12 mobile units, but they are empty or used for support staff. Mt. Ulla has four mobile units that are used for enrichment classes.

Faith Principal Jacqueline Maloney stated that if mobile units were removed from the school, she would have nowhere to put students.

Q: Why didn’t the school system put the money for iPads and the Wallace Educational Forum towards school upkeep?

A: According to Foil, monies for the One-to-One initiative were pulled from instructional support funding the system received from the state.

“Instead of buying textbooks, we bought technology,” Foil said.

A request for whether funding for the school central office could have been used for school improvement was not returned by time of publication.

Q: What about jobs?

A: Moody said that no teachers will lose their jobs, as the number of teacher positions is determined by number of students. Other jobs may be retained through attrition.

However, Vann has stated that part of the savings gained from each closure would be the result of staffing. The long-range facilities plan highlights areas of savings including cafeteria workers, secretarial positions, media center coordinators and administrative staff.

Q: How can I voice my thoughts and concerns?

A: You can contact board members directly by e-mailing them. E-mails are listed on the board’s website at https://eboard.eboardsolutions.com/AboutUs/AboutUs.aspx?S=800&TID=1

The board also holds public comment at its monthly business meeting. The next business meeting is Monday at 4 p.m. in the Wallace Educational Forum board room. You can sign up for public comment before the meeting or by calling Board Clerk Patty Overcash at 704-630-6102.

Community meetings will be held across the county in coming months. The first of these meetings will discuss the consolidation of Cleveland and Woodleaf and will be held Thursday at West Rowan High School beginning at 6:30 p.m.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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