Education issues bubble up during Justice Center forum

Published 12:05 am Sunday, January 15, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — The local economic engine is out of fuel, and education ranks as the most critical ingredient to fill it back up, said participants in a community forum last week.

The forum, at the Rowan Public Library Headquarters, was hosted by the N.C. Justice Center. It was intended to focus on issues facing the Salisbury and Rowan County community, how state policy choices can make a difference and how people can get engaged in the upcoming legislative session.

Staff from the N.C. Justice Center spent time talking about state policy, but the dozen or so participants in the forum spent most of their time on education-related issues. More specifically, the group spent significant amounts of time discussing a proposed charter school in East Spencer.

Conversation during the forum, however, started with talk about the culture of Salisbury and Rowan County. Community activist and artist Whitney Peckman led off by describing a “strong sense of class” that exists in Rowan County, which she said is “deeply divided” economically and largely controlled by a wealthy class of people.

“You begin to see that Salisbury is a microcosm of the country,” Peckman said. “It is the historically impoverished which are the most helpless.”

Other people in attendance expressed similar sentiments. However, Peckman and Nan Lund, also a local community activist, largely drove the conversation. As talks slowly shifted toward poverty and education, the N.C. Justice Center staff asked the pair — Lund and Peckman — to describe a charter school effort in East Spencer. Both women have been heavily involved in starting the charter school.

Just as the group conversation began to shift to education, attendees Beth Foreman and Jeffrey Sharp discussed a talking point that would become central to later conversations.

Foreman said current Rowan-Salisbury Schools Superintendent Lynn Moody has slowly improved a system that previously didn’t promote a desire for learning.

“I think Lynn Moody has done some remarkable things for the school system, but we have a long way to go and many, many years (to go),” Foreman said.

Building on Foreman’s statement, Sharp likened the current state of the local economy to an engine that’s out of fuel.

“It’s a circular deal,” Sharp said. “If you don’t build the schools, then you don’t have the people who have the modern skills to start businesses and the interest as far as businesses are concerned about establishing themselves in this county. If you don’t have the business, then you find there’s no tax base to improve the schools. So, the whole engine is just out of fuel and there’s nothing to drive it through the cycle.”

Using East Spencer as an example, Lund said it’s a monumental challenge to escape generational poverty. Lund said the charter school she and others hope to create in East Spencer would be more than a place to educate children. It would include services for parents, too.

“Part of the reason that (students from East Spencer) are doing poorly is, aside from the fact that the schools they are going to are not serving their needs very well, that they are in a foreign culture,” Lund said. “We want to make it (the charter school) culturally relevant.”

In addition to a school, Thomasina Paige, who attended the forum, said East Spencer needs some sort of community center that caters to adults, grandparents and others. She noted the many activities that occurred at the Dunbar Center when it was open.

Peckman said the charter school could, once created, become the much-needed community center for East Spencer. She cited anecdotal evidence that people might move back into East Spencer once the charter school is created.

“You know, the kids go to school outside, into Spencer or Salisbury for school,” she said. “They go out into the county to school. There’s a gravitational pull. Kids go to school outside of the area and parents are picking them up in another area. Now, the parents don’t know each other. Remember how we used to know each other from school and our parents would know each other because it was all the parents of your friends?”

Peckman also briefly described problems the charter school effort faced because of Kenneth Fox’s felony criminal record. Fox had been the chairman of the charter school board, but stepped down voluntarily after the group’s efforts were hampered by his criminal record. The charter school board opposed Fox stepping down, Peckman said.

As the conversation shifted away from the charter school effort, Lund said actions that forum attendees could take to improve local education include putting pressure on the Rowan-Salisbury School Board to be more responsive to citizens and encouraging the Rowan County Board of Commissioners to fund public schools at a higher level.

The N.C. Justice Center is a Raleigh-based policy group focused on poverty and socio-economic issues.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246