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Editorial: Too many empty seats in schools

Rowan County has some tough choices ahead when it comes to maintaining school buildings. While the concept of compromise is unpopular in our nation at the moment, working out this local education issue will require give and take across the county.

The school board must make the process as open and transparent as possible. Meanwhile, citizens who care about schools will start paying attention now with a focus on solving this problem for everyone, not just protecting their own turf.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education learned quickly last year that having outside consultants suggest a plan for streamlining schools was a non-starter. Areas identified for possible school closure or consolidation were immediately up in arms. The board dropped the consultants’ proposal, which members said they never seriously entertained anyway.

The board wisely appointed a citizen-driven Capital Needs Committee in February to size up the situation. This way, the people coming up with recommendations would not be outside consultants, administration officials or school board members. Instead, the group was made up of local parents, business people and other taxpayers.

Their conclusion: The status quo is not an option. As much as everyone likes their schools and district lines the way they are, change is imperative. Here are some key numbers:

$208.5 million: The cost of repairs, maintenance and up-fitting that the system’s 35 campuses need now. Heating and air conditioning needs alone account for more than $41 million. The new West elementary and Knox Middle replacement account for $67 million.

60 percent: The  percentage of school buildings that are more than 50 years old and therefore (usually) more expensive to operate and maintain.

4,467 seats: The schools’ excess capacity includes 1,841 elementary seats, 1,004 middle school seats and 1,622 high school seats.

There will be talk about what could have been done in the past, or which schools should not have been built. But woulda, coulda, shoulda will not solve the problem. There’s no time machine for do-overs. Rowan-Salisbury has to deal with a future that anticipates little population growth and increasing popularity for private, charter and home schools.

“We must look hard at the district lines,” the committee report said, “being very careful to avoid the common pitfalls of inadvertently creating low-income schools or creating high-income schools.

“Redistricting should be about the needs of the county, not personal preference or politics.”

Redistricting. School closure. Replacement. Consolidation. These are the touchiest subjects a school board can tackle. Barring a huge jump in funds from the county, though, the school board faces taking those difficult actions in the not-too-distant future.

The board will get a more in-depth look at the issues during its Oct. 24 business meeting. As the process moves forward, transparency will be the school board’s friend — that and citizen involvement.

Let’s do all we can to avoid divisiveness. If you care about schools, get involved, study the issues and work toward addressing “the needs of the county,” as the committee said — not personal wants.

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