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Future of RSS Long Street office still to be determined

By Rebecca Rider and Shavonne Walker

rebecca.rider@salisburypost.com

SALISBURY — It’s been nearly four months since the Rowan-Salisbury School System moved its administrative offices from 110 S. Long St. in East Spencer to the Wallace Educational Forum on North Main Street, and the fate of the old office is still a puzzle.

When the Board of Education advertised in the Salisbury Post for sealed bids in April, it received no offers – despite the town of East Spencer and the Paul L. Dunbar Charter Organization expressing interest in the building in the past. Assistant Superintendent Anthony Vann said he was unable to say if offers had been made since the board’s May 30 meeting.

East Spencer

It’s no secret the town of East Spencer has been eyeing the property for some time now and consulted with a company to see what options are available if the town obtained the property.

Town Administrator David Jaynes has said the town is not currently in a financial position to buy the 1920s-era building, which likely contains asbestos, lead paint and potentially other issues that would be costly to remove or repair.

The town is however, in a position to make the building part of its Brownfields Assessment grant project. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the town does not have to own the property in order to have it assessed.

“The Brownfields assessment can help investigate any potential contaminants. We can use some of our funds to assess the building to help us know what we are dealing with and help offset the cost for a potential developer,” Jaynes said.

The town hired Development Finance Initiative (DFI) through the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Government, which partners with local governments to provide economic development services. In September 2015, DFI experts began creating a feasibility study for the town to determine how best to use the Long Street property.

“Our specialty is to partner with communities to make transformative projects happen,” said project manager Tanner Dudley.

Dudley said DFI looked at the site, examined market conditions and, based on market research of the greater area, they determined it could be used for affordable senior housing.

There is a demand for low income housing in the area, Dudley said.

“All of this is a proposal and feasibility assessment. Our job now that we’ve completed that process is to identify a private partner to come in and complete a project,” he said.

Dunbar organization

Members of the Dunbar group said they’re still very interested in the building – but they never saw the advertisement for bids. When they heard that the system was looking to negotiate a price, they jumped into action.

“We immediately notified them that we were still interested,” Nan Lund, secretary of the Paul L. Dunbar board said.

Dunbar Chairman Kenneth Muhammad El, formerly Kenneth Fox, has been sitting on the lawn every afternoon to protest the Board of Education’s decision to look into demolition costs during the negotiation process.

“At this point we’re just kind of backed against the wall,” he said.

The group hopes to transform the building into a charter school and community center – the town of East Spencer has been without a school for 30 years and has no place for the town to gather or provide youth programs and community services.

By turning it into a school, the building would be returned to its original use.

“And we think that East Spencer has none of the facilities . . . that it’s really only justice being served to return that building to a use that would benefit the people of East Spencer,” Dunbar board member Whitney Peckman said.

In January, the group requested that the Board of Education give the building to them. It was an option that, at the time, was forbidden by state statute until the board went through all of the requirements for sale.

“We’re not allowed to just give the property to an individual or to another group,” Vann said.

But now that the board has advertised for bids, Vann said the statute would allow the building to be exchanged for a “nominal” fee.

Peckman said the group Friday made an offer of $1 for the building, and said that to her it seemed “only morally right” that the school board support the formation of a school in the struggling community of East Spencer.

According to Peckman, a bid from local architect Bill Burgin said the group should be able to bring the building up to code for approximately $1.6 million.

“I could see it costing that much,” Vann said.

Moving ahead with school

The group will apply for a Community Facilities Direct Grant and Loan program under the USDA’s rural division, and Peckman is confident that they’ll receive it.

The group will resubmit its charter application in September.

Last year’s application was denied in January, after the state advisory board expressed concerns about the group’s management company, Torchlight Academy Services, and Muhammad El’s criminal record.

Advisory board members cited the low rating and quality rank of Torchlight Academy, a Raleigh charter school managed by Torchlight Academy Services, as a red flag for the management group, and dragged up a May 2005 grand jury indictment against Muhammad El and two former East Spencer Aldermen.

In late 2005, Muhammad El pleaded guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, wire fraud, federal program bribery, affect commerce through extortion, use of mail to promote bribery and promote money laundering and to one count of obtaining property through false pretenses and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Peckman said Muhammad El has served his obligation to society, and his past is behind him. Muhammad El in 2011 earned a master’s degree in business management from the University of Phoenix, and is pursuing a doctorate from Walden University in public policy and administration. He was also appointed to the Rowan County Housing Board in 2014. At the time, county commissioners who appointed Muhammad El said he deserved a second chance.

Muhammad El will remain the chair of the Dunbar group, and Peckman said the board plans to keep Torchlight as its management company, as well. In the meantime, the group plans to open a private school as early as January 2017, with tuition funded by the Opportunity Scholarship Program of the State of North Carolina. If the charter is approved, the group hopes to transition into a charter school by August 2018.

“We think we have a really strong argument for putting a charter school in a town that has no school,” Peckman said.

 

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. Contact report Shavonne Walker at 704-797-4253 or shavonne.walker@salisburypost.com .

 

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