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Rowan-Salisbury Schools committee recommends school closures, redistricting

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education dusted off an old conversation Monday: What to do about 35 aging schools and more than $200 million in capital needs.

After nearly a year of deliberation, a Capital Needs Committee made up of residents and community leaders came back with a recommendation: redistrict, consolidate and close.

Approximately 11 area schools were highlighted for possible consolidation or closure because they scored low on condition and efficiency markers. Building age and condition, energy use, the number of repairs needed, capacity versus actual enrollment, class size, recent upgrades and distance from other schools were among the factors considered.

No action was taken at Monday’s meeting.

“Note that these are just recommendations to the school board as the committee has no authority to take any action,” committee member and Rockwell Alderwoman Stephanie Walker said Monday.

The crux of the issue is that the district has roughly $208 million in capital needs but receives only $2.4 million to address them annually.

“So if you take $2.4 million and multiply it, you’re not going to get to $208 (million) anytime soon,” Walker said.

“At this point, we have a credit card with no limit, we’re making the minimum payment, and we’re racking up bills on this thing. It’s just not a situation we can get out of,” committee member Nick Atkins said.

The committee also considered outside factors such as shrinking state and federal funding for schools, growing funding rigidity and whether the district can afford to continue operating 35 schools.

Committee members made their decision blind — looking solely at data, and not the specific names of schools.

If a school fell short in five or more areas, it was flagged.

“It’s hitting a lot of boxes that are telling us that it’s going to be a problem for us now in capital needs and it’s going to be a problem in the future,” Atkins said.

In the end, six elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools were flagged: Overton, Mount Ulla, Hurley, Morgan, Granite Quarry and Faith elementaries; China Grove, Corriher-Lipe and Knox middle schools; and North Rowan and Henderson high schools.

However, closure or consolidation is not necessarily their fate. Redistricting, Atkins said, would be “a huge piece of the pie.”

“It’s not necessarily that every building has to replaced and consolidated. We have some standing structures that will work. We just have to fill them with kids,” he said.

The committee recommended a one- to five-year plan to close or consolidate the 11 schools or redistrict as needed.

Board member Dean Hunter, who helped oversee the committee, commended its members on their work.

“It goes without saying there’s been a lot of hard work, a lot of number crunching,” he said. “… They did a great job of trying to be unbiased and unemotional in this area.”

And no matter how difficult the conversation was, it had to begin.

“Doing nothing is no longer an option. I think we know that,” he said.

Board member Jean Kennedy, however, had a few concerns with the recommendations.

“I think your recommendations need to be reversed. … Redistricting ought to be your first consideration,” she said.

Walker and Atkins said the committee is not recommending a specific order, just steps that would need to be taken at some point. Redistricting would be part of that process, but it could not be the only one, they said.

“We have to close schools,” he said. “We don’t have enough kids. … There’s no way to look at the numbers and arrive to any other conclusion other than that. … But at this point, we’re past one fix or another. We need multiple fixes to fix this issue.”

Board member Richard Miller agreed and said that work to solve the problem — whatever the solution may be — needs to begin soon.

“We don’t have another 10 years to talk about the plan,” he said. “We’ve got to take some actions.”

But it would be a long, difficult journey, some said.

“We are faced with a challenge,” board Chairman Josh Wagner said.

Should the board choose to close schools, he said, it might not necessarily be the schools in these recommendations.

“We are doing something, having a conversation that should have been had a long time ago,” he said. “So the question is, where do we go from here? I don’t know exactly. This process is very convoluted and very difficult.”

But he said he does know that the community needs to get involved — and in more ways than just shooting down ideas.

“We’ve got to have a much bigger conversation that that. We need to know what we see as a vision,” he said.

The board will also need to get more information, such as business, housing market and economic forecasts for the county for the next five years, before it makes a decision about moving forward.

“It’s obviously a tough discussion to have,” Wagner said in an interview after the meeting, “but this is the best opportunity for those who want to get involved to get involved.”

The Capital Needs Committee will not meet again until it receives further direction from the board.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.

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