Editorial: Public makes good points, if given a chance

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 1, 2016

Maybe Chuck Hughes, a Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education member, thought he was going to have a drop-the-mike moment when he rose to address an unsettled crowd Thursday night at West Rowan High School.

But it turned out to be a take-the-mike moment instead, when School Board Chairman Josh Wagner had to take the microphone from Hughes and, in effect, save him from further embarrassment.

Emotions had run pretty high all night against a proposed consolidation of Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools into one new school, for which the board already has architectural drawings and a site selected at N.C. 801 and Godbey Road.

People in the crowd made many valid points and suggestions, especially in connection to the proposed site. They also reiterated what has become the overriding, never-addressed-adequately question whenever the school board has talked about closing schools: Is the education of students really being put first?

So when Hughes stood up before the crowd and said he was angry that their points weren’t made at least a year earlier when the school board started working on the consolidation, the blood started to boil among those in the audience.

And rightly so. The Board of Education’s handling of this consolidation — and the overall question of closing four other elementary schools to save on maintenance costs — could serve as a case study for public relations majors on how not to handle a controversial issue.

The community meeting held Thursday night should have been the first thing scheduled years ago, before any architectural drawings or proposed sites were on the table. Instead, public input was treated as an afterthought. Parents and community leaders should have been part of the discussion from the beginning. There has to be a buy-in on their side, and accomplishing that takes true work and representation by the school board.

It’s not a defense to say parents should have been taking off work and attending weirdly scheduled board meetings, waiting for the topic to come up. No. the legwork has to happen on the board’s end, and it has to happen early within the communities to be affected.

Now school board members know, from input they received Thursday, that the new school site they have in mind is located at a dangerous intersection, that it’s close to a Southern Power plant not immune to explosions and that it could be adding 15 minutes to student bus rides that already are too long.

It’s interesting how Hughes’ anger has changed to reconciliation since he lost the microphone Thursday night. Commenting on the Post’s story related to the hearing, Hughes wrote, “If those issues turn out to be as significant as they seem to be, and there are no corrective options, the board needs to ask why they were not addressed earlier in the planning stage. We did hear you!”

But what took you so long?