School system, commissioners discuss $208 million in capital needs

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, January 25, 2017

By Josh Bergeron

SALISBURY — By March, county government is scheduled to finalize details of a $6.5 million loan to make repairs and security upgrades at schools in the Rowan-Salisbury system, but it will hardly dent the massive mound of capital needs.

County and Rowan-Salisbury School System officials met Tuesday to discuss a long list of repairs totaling $208.53 million. The list of repairs excludes projects at Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools, because they’re scheduled to be consolidated. All other schools have repairs on the list.

Even Carson High School, built in 2006, has about $1.26 million in capital needs. Carson’s needs include items such as tennis court repairs and completing unfinished classrooms.

County commissioners, who have the final say on local operating and capital expenditures, will soon take a small bite out of the $208.53 million. By March, county government will finalize a $6.5 million loan that will pay for security upgrades and roofing renovations at a number of schools. Commissioners have also committed to funding a consolidated western elementary school, which will take a larger chunk out of capital needs.

Even with the two commitments, there’s a long list of school repair projects that need funding.

At $41 million, heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs ranked as the most expensive item on the list presented Tuesday.

A new Knox Middle School was second at $40 million.

Speaking about the $41 million in HVAC repairs, County Commissioner Mike Caskey said commissioners may be able to provide several million dollars at once and increase the amount annually allocated to repairs.

“If we just spend an additional $1 million now until forever, maybe we won’t have to borrow $41 million or things like that,” he said on Tuesday. “We probably can’t borrow any more money next year, but maybe we can increase the current capital some.”

A bond package for repairs may be possible at a later date, but he said it’s unlikely Rowan County residents would be OK with a bond to pay for all of the school system’s capital needs.

County Manager Aaron Church said a 20-cent tax increase would be needed to pay for the entire, $208-million list of needs.

The school system’s list of capital needs includes more than $11 million for every high school in the county, $5.42 million for Erwin Middle, nearly $5 million for Granite Quarry Elementary and $4.4 million for North Rowan Elementary. Money is needed for every school in the county, according to the list presented Tuesday.

Henderson is the lone high school without more than $11 million for repairs, but county commissioners have briefly discussed moving the alternative school into West End Plaza, the former Salisbury Mall. On Tuesday, Caskey casually implied that the move is still a possibility.

“There might be somewhere around the county that has extra space,” Caskey said during the meeting.

School Board Member Dean Hunter said the school system will create a capital needs committee that includes parents, elected officials, business leaders and other local residents. The committee would discuss prioritizing capital needs.

The list presented to county commissioners on Tuesday ranks schools from one to 10. A higher number indicates the school is in better shape. Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann said a rating of “three” indicates it’s time to begin looking at replacing or repairing the facility. Schools with a 3 ranking include Cleveland Elementary, Woodleaf Elementary, Knox Middle and Henderson High. Schools ranked 4 include Overton Elementary and North Rowan High.

Prodded by a question from Commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene, Vann said making necessary repairs to a decades-old school wouldn’t necessarily raise it to a 9 rating. A perfect 10 rating only exists for schools shortly after they open, Vann said.

With many schools built several decades ago, Greene asked those in attendance on Tuesday when it’s time to “stop putting money into an old building.” He used the $6.5 million commissioners have committed for roofing repairs and security upgrades as an example.

“You put a new roof on a 75-year-old building and you’ve still got a 75-year-old building that just doesn’t leak,” Greene said.

Echoing Greene’s point, Hunter said investing money in old schools may amount to “putting it on life support.”

“At some point, we as representatives of the taxpayers owe it, as a steward, to make sure we’re not sinking millions of dollars into a school that is never going to be a nine,” Hunter said.

No majors decisions were made Tuesday about how the capital needs would be addressed.

School board members and Superintendent Lynn Moody on Tuesday said decisions about repairs will be complicated by the recent emergence of charter schools. The school system receives money based on its student population. When students leave for a charter school, the Rowan-Salisbury School System loses money.

“There may be a new charter school that opens right next to a school that we just put $4 million worth of renovations into, and we don’t know how to predict for that,” she said after Tuesday’s meeting.

Another fact complicating decisions about how to address the system’s capital needs: many schools are under-capacity by several dozen students. Others, such as Carson High School, are over-capacity. Hunter noted that if the Rowan-Salisbury system has fewer students, it ultimately means less funding.

Contact reporter Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4246