Rowan-Salisbury school board revisits consolidation discussion
SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education revisited a controversial topic Monday night: School consolidation.
The idea of closing and merging schools was first broached in 2016 after the decision to merge Cleveland and Woodleaf elementaries into a new West Rowan Elementary School.
The district has many aging school buildings and a declining student population, factors that officials say have put a strain on an already limited budget. According to a facility needs study done in 2015-16, more than 50 percent of Rowan-Salisbury school buildings are in poor shape according to standards set by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
A community outcry quickly shut down the 2016 discussion. Then in 2017, the board formed a committee made up of local residents to brainstorm about ways to address the nearly $200 million in building needs.
After more than six months of discussion and research, the committee in September 2017 determined that Rowan-Salisbury has too many buildings for a school district its size and recommended consolidation.
The issue was dropped again until outgoing board member Richard Miller requested that it be added to the agenda of a board meeting Monday. The situation, Miller said, is growing dire.
“There is no longer any time to wait,” he said.
Earlier in the meeting, board members had been told about needed heating and air conditioning updates that would total more than $300,000 and that cost projections for renovations or a new building for Knox Middle School run from $21 million to $50 million. They also studied the declining student population.
According to district staff, enrollment has dropped steadily since 2014. This year’s 10-day count put the number of students at 18,744 — nearly 500 fewer students than last year’s 19,170. That difference could mean as loss of nearly $2 million in funding, said Candace Hosey, RSS’ chief technology officer.
Among elementary schools, enrollment has steadily dropped since 2013. Only 8,374 students attend RSS elementary schools this year, compared to 9,243 in 2013. For some elementary schools — like Koontz and Hurley — that means a decrease of 25 percent or more over the past five years.
While attendance data isn’t so clear cut for middle and high schools, some schools are still being hit hard. North Rowan High School has seen a 21 percent decrease in enrollment, and China Grove Middle School has seen a 19 percent decrease.
Many students are withdrawing to attend schools outside Rowan County or even outside North Carolina. Others are choosing private or charter schools or home schooling. Whatever the reason, the trend leaves Rowan-Salisbury Schools with a problem, and, according to Miller, changes need to be made “like yesterday.”
“Whether renewal, whether redacted … whoever we want to claim to be, we can’t wait,” he said.
Miller said he decided to bring up consolidation again now that the district is the state’s first renewal system. Renewal gives the school system unparalleled flexibilities, and it may be time to reshuffle facilities, as well, he said.
“It seems to me they go kind of hand in glove with each other,” he said.
Rowan is a poor county that “is only getting poorer,” Miller said, citing the roughly 70 percent of RSS students who receive free and reduced-price lunches as proof.
“We can’t afford it,” he said of operating 35 schools. “We cannot afford it. It’s time to bite the bullet and deal with it.”
According to a facility needs study, local elementary schools have more than 1,500 empty seats and middle and high schools have nearly 1,000 empty seats. That’s no longer fiscally responsible, Miller said.
“It’s like your budget. When you can’t afford it any more, you’ve got to decide what you stop doing,” he said.
Miller proposed a series of ideas that he said the board should at least discuss over the coming months.
They included looking at the possibility of closing or repurposing two or three elementary schools; renovating or rebuilding Knox Middle School; closing the Henderson Independent High School campus and relocating the program to a smaller facility; and creating a career and technical high school, possibly by repurposing an empty building.
While the district may need to close schools, Miller said, it is also important to be strategic about future needs.
“We as a system have to create a career and technical high school. That is what our students need, that is what our community needs. That is where we need to go,” he said.
Board Chairman Josh Wagner suggested that the board touch base with the capital needs committee again, as well as start conversations with people in the community. Even if people didn’t like the idea of consolidation, it would be important to have them weigh in and help come up with solutions.
“There are times where we have to do what we have to do,” Wagner said. “In order to move this forward, we’re going to have to have those conversations as small groups.”
Board member Dean Hunter said the committee has already given its recommendation but he couldn’t recall the board ever setting aside time to go through those findings in detail. That might be a good place to start, he said.
“We don’t want to make it worthless,” he said of the committee’s work.
“There’s plenty of pieces of data we ought to take time to look at,” he said.
The board agreed to start its Oct. 8 work session at noon instead of 1 p.m. The board will spend the extra time reviewing the committee’s report and other data, as well as further discussing renovation or rebuilding possibilities for Knox Middle School.
Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264.
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