Rowan-Salisbury school board begins conversation addressing building needs

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools is at a crossroads, members of a Capital Needs Committee told the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday.

For years, the district has struggled with a limited budget, rising capital needs and aging schools. The search for a way to solve the puzzle is part of what prompted the board to form the Capital Needs Committee in February.

“Basically, the Capital Needs Committee was given the task of receiving information. … And they were just given the task of a think tank,” board member Dean Hunter said.

On Monday, the think-tank presented its thoughts on six months of research, learning and posing personal answers to the question: What would you do to address more than $200 million in capital needs?

It’s an ongoing discussion the board has been wrestling with for more than a year.

“This is a conversation we have to have,” board Chairman Josh Wagner said in an interview after Monday’s meeting. “We have not made a decision. … This is a discussion.”

While a few board members and district officials attended committee meetings, they took a “hands off approach” and let community members put on their thinking caps, board member Travis Allen said in a Tuesday interview.

Committee members included parents, business owners and taxpayers who poured over population projections, feasibility studies, land use plans, tax rates and the district’s capital needs budget. Allen said he felt it was important that any suggestions on how the school board could solve its problems come from the community — not an out-of-area consultant.

“I think they’re more powerful, and I think they’re more valid than something from the outside,” he said.

At Monday’s meeting, members reviewed facts that included:

• The district needs $208.5 million in repairs, maintenance and upfitting of buildings.

• Roughly 60 percent of the schools are more than 50 years old; 15 of the 35 buildings were built before 1940.

• The district has a total of 4,467 empty seats.

According to committee research, Rowan-Salisbury’s empty seats could accommodate the entire populations of Alexander, Camden or Halifax county school districts — a fact committee member Chris Boardman called “a knife in the heart.”

Boardman said the committee compared Rowan County to Harnett County — a county of similar size, population and median income. The school districts have a similar number of students, with Harnett County Schools serving 21,135 students and Rowan-Salisbury Schools, roughly 19,757. But Harnett County has 10 fewer school facilities than Rowan-Salisbury.

“And as a taxpayer in this county, that breaks my heart,” Boardman said.

Committee members then presented their thoughts — but did not make specific recommendations or pose specific solutions.

The district could strengthen or combine current schools, Boardman said, “but that might lead to closing certain schools.” It could also look at building new school buildings to replace old facilities.

“Our committee believes that, no matter what happens, redistricting has to happen. And we need to do it based on the needs of the county and not personal preference and politics,” He said.

Several committee members, like Jason Walser and Stephanie Walker, also have students in Rowan-Salisbury Schools, and said they tried to look at every possibility objectively — even ones that might close schools in their own neighborhoods.

“It’s really tricky, as you might imagine,” Walser said. “…We don’t have any single idea of how to do this. It’s complex and it’s hard and I don’t envy you at all.”

However, the committee did agree on a few things: something had to be done — and soon — and students deserved clean, state-of-the-art facilities.

“There’s no simple solution, but looking at the numbers we’re not running our schools efficiently,” Walker said. “Nobody wants their local, their hometown school closed, but the answer is we’re going to have to close some schools, and we’re gonna have to consolidate. Some of them are just too old to fix. And the numbers just don’t lie.”

After the presentation, the board considered its next step. Wagner suggested that the board set up a meeting with County Commissioners through the Joint Planning Committee so that everyone was on the same page.

“No matter what we do, whether we’re asking for more money, whether we’re looking at consolidating — it’s all tied to dollars, and the majority of that funnels through the county, so they need to be involved. … This is not just a school system issue; it’s a county issue. It’s a taxpayer issue,” he said.

Hunter agreed, and Allen praised the committee for its work.

“It’s unbiased,” Allen said. “No one can say in any manner that this is influenced by some rich consultant. These are our people, our community, from all walks of life.”

Board member Jean Kennedy also voiced her appreciation.

“I simply want to thank the committee for broaching an area that is not popular at all,” Kennedy said. “We need to hear that from citizens, and we need to open our eyes to realize our problems and how we can eradicate them.”

But it is important to hammer out a strategy now, board member Richard Miller said, and to “talk about the untalkables.”

“We don’t, in my opinion, have 10 years to address this problem. We just don’t,” he said.

In a Tuesday interview, Allen said the school system is likely just a few accidents and replacements away from a crisis.

“It’s obviously come to a point where something has to be done. Where somebody has to be the good guy or somebody has to be the bad guy,” he said.

Wagner said the district needs to get to a place where it can handle capital needs as they arise, instead of continuing to defer maintenance.

“When you look at where we are, we just don’t have a lot of options. … We have got to find a way to reduce the amount of money we’re spending on capital,” he said.

For the board, the way forward lies in a long series of conversations — with county officials and with the community.

Allen said it is important for community members to know that they have a voice in the issue and that their voices are welcome.

“If you want to give your opinion, don’t wait,” he said. “Give your opinion now. … Learn the facts now.”

Wagner said he hopes residents won’t have a “knee-jerk reaction” but would be willing to come to meetings, speak to board members, voice their own ideas and pose their own solutions.

“I hope that the intent is not to just stop discussion,” he said. “You don’t find a solution by simply refusing to talk about something.”

The board agreed to set up a meeting with the Joint Planning Committee and invited members of the Capital Needs Committee to make another presentation and talk about the issue in more depth at the Oct. 24 business meeting.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.