Rowan-Salisbury school board debates future of Knox Middle School

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, September 25, 2018

SALISBURY — After years of discussion, the finish line may be in sight for Knox Middle School.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education has promised a new building for Knox for years. On Monday night, the board finally took a step toward making it a reality.

Debt service on the school system is expected to be retired in 2021, which would free up an estimated $60 million. And there’s no reason a chunk of that shouldn’t go to Knox, board members said.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann said a new middle school would cost $40 million to $50 million. That is more than $10 million more than the new West Rowan Elementary School, currently under construction in Cleveland.

Vann said the cost difference is because a middle school has more square footage and sports facilities.

Vann also gave the board options for renovating the building: a moderate renovation priced at $17 million and a more extensive renovation for $21 million.

All options include new flooring, a new roof, new finishings, and a new heating and air conditioning system. However, extensive renovations would connect the scattered buildings at Knox with a series of enclosed, windowed hallways.

Some Knox supporters, however, said they would settle for nothing less than a new building.

Cynthia Sloan Bailey, a former teacher at Knox, urged the board to “give (Knox) her due.” The building has been repaired and patched for decades to little effect, she said.

“When we do patchwork, it is only temporary. … The time for patching at Knox needs to come to an end,” Bailey said.

Lia Silverberg, another former teacher, said some things are beyond repair.

“You can’t fix something sometimes,” she argued.

Should the board choose let the issue slide yet again or choose to renovate the school, it would be the latest in a list of slights for Knox, Silverberg said. She said Knox was the last district school to get activity buses or internet, among other things.

“Knox and the city school students have always been pushed to the bottom of the list,” she said.

It’s time to give Knox a “shiny” new building, she added.

Jason Walser, who works for the Robertson Family Foundation, said his children attended Knox and he agrees that it is time for a change.

“I’m not advocating any particular choice, but I am advocating keeping it on the front burner,” Walser said.

Board members, too, leaned toward a new facility. However, the cost estimates are a moving target. According to Vann, construction costs are projected to increase 6 percent to 8 percent annually. Chairman Josh Wagner said the board wouldn’t know exact numbers for renovations or other repairs unless it solicits bids.

“It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to come up with realistic numbers aside from a new school,” Wagner said.

Board member Alisha Byrd Clark, a graduate of Knox, added her support for a new building.

“I would just rather see a new Knox being built. Knox is long overdue, and they deserve a new building,” Clark said.

Wagner said he agrees but there are caveats to consider. The district has more than $150 million in capital needs; would it be right to spend most of the projected $60 million on a single school? It might be the last large chunk of change the district will see for a while, he said.

“I don’t have any insight on large capital funds after this,” he said.

That line of thought makes renovation the more attractive option to Wagner.

“If you can walk out of there with $35 to $40 million left to address some of those other needs, to me, that’s a win,” he said.

Board member Richard Miller asked if there could be “an in-between step.” For example, could the district demolish a detached building and add a second story to another building?

“I think there is an in-between step, but I think it’s going to be significantly more than ($17 million),” Vann replied.

At some point, the cost of renovation would become so high that it would be more feasible to build a new building, he said.

Wagner asked if it would be possible to do a different type of construction or to tweak an existing school plan, such as the one for West Rowan Elementary, to trim costs.

“Is that something we should be looking into?” he asked.

Vann said it would be possible and would save money — but likely not more than a few million.

Board members also wanted to know how much of the proposed $40 million is because of estimates for new athletic facilities.

“It’s multimillion-dollar,” Vann said.

Miller suggested using old athletic facilities and rebuilding Knox on the same plot of land. Students could be relocated to temporary facilities nearby.

“We save a lot of money by not having to acquire a piece of land, by not having to build new athletic fields,” he said.

If the board wants to build or renovate Knox by the time the “money drops” in 2021, it needs to start planning now, Vann said. The first step would be putting together a design team and finding an architect. Whether the board chooses to renovate or build, someone would need to design the project. Wagner agreed.

“That’s really all we can do. That’s as far as we can go in this conversation pre-emptively,” he said.

Miller made a motion to allow Vann to seek quotes. Before the board voted, however, board member Jean Kennedy underlined the need for a new building.

“We put Knox off before,” Kennedy said. “I have a daughter that is 54 years old. She went to Knox; the school was not new then.”

The board unanimously approved making a request for quotes for an architect.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.