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School board discusses capital needs, consolidation

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education spent more than an hour Monday discussing its enormous capital needs deficit.

The discussion came after member Richard Miller requested that the board revisit the findings of its capital needs committee, which sought to find solutions for more than $200 million in capital needs.

According to district staff, it costs roughly $5.3 million per year to maintain the system’s 35 schools. However, the county provides only $2.4 million per year — resulting in a mounting deficit and slowly failing school facilities. Over the past 25 years, this has amounted to roughly $200 million in repairs, not counting daily maintenance.

When the capital needs committee met during 2017, the only answer it found was to close or merge schools. According to board member Dean Hunter, the committee — which included members of the public — started with a blank slate “and let the numbers determine the results.”

The committee looked at operating costs, building conditions, and age and capacity for each school without knowing the schools’ names. At the end of a nearly yearlong study, the committee recommended that the board consider closing six elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools.

The board never took any action, and the issue was on the back burner until Monday.

“I don’t think we took time to go through it seriously enough for the amount of time that was put into it,” Hunter said.

He and others suggested that the committee’s findings could be a starting point for renewed discussions.

“If they didn’t do anything, they at least created a formula for going forward,” Hunter said.

Board Chairman Josh Wagner suggested that the recommendations could be a good start for a long-range plan. In 2016, the board heard a proposal to close six schools. The discussion that followed was likely “too bold,” Wagner said Monday. He’d like to see a 10-year plan for tackling capital needs and consolidating schools one at a time.

“Maybe we can use this recommendation to start whittling down,” he said.

Other board members argued that the district doesn’t have time for that — especially not with high maintenance costs and more than 2,000 empty seats in local schools.

“We don’t need to have the equivalent of three or more empty elementary schools when we don’t have people in them and we’re paying for them,” Miller said.

He suggested looking at multiple schools at once to see if repairs, additions or closures are appropriate.

But the board isn’t rushing into making any decisions — especially not when potential school closures could result in redistricting.

“One decision can have so many variables that are attached to it, and that’s where the work comes in,” Wagner said.

“The work’s been done. It’s just a matter of a decision from the board,” Hunter responded.

Hunter suggested bringing information before the county commissioners.

Miller agreed that the board needs to take action.

“I think we have plenty of data, and I think it’s been here,” he said. “… I think we have plenty of data to make a decision.”

During its discussion, board members referenced an anticipated $60 million in bond service that will be released in 2020 or 2021. In past discussions, board members proposed using that money to renovate or rebuild Knox Middle School. But Superintendent Lynn Moody cautioned that $60 million is not a price tag the board should count on, because the money belongs to the county.

And when the board talks about consolidating to save money, Moody reminded members that any money saved from closing schools would go toward correcting the daily maintenance deficit — it won’t be available to build schools or even to make a dent in the $200 million in capital needs.

“There’s no way we can catch up on 25 years of neglect. We couldn’t do that in a bond referendum and closing schools — there’s no way. … Anything reasonable can’t fix it; it’s too big,” she said.

Wagner agreed. It’s important to not contend that closing or consolidating schools would solve all the district’s money problems or that the savings would fully fund new buildings. Instead, the board needs to be strategic and think ahead in its financial planning, he said.

“This is long-range,” Wagner said. “However we do this, we need to be clear.”

No other county in the state, Wagner said, has the same ratio of students and school buildings as Rowan-Salisbury Schools. According to the committee’s findings, the closest comparison in North Carolina is Harnett County, which has 1,000 more students and about five or six fewer schools than RSS.

Despite this, board members acknowledged that it would be a difficult conversation for local communities. And the problem will only get worse, Hunter said.

“It’s a horrible conversation for some people, but it’s a county conversation we need to be having about the future of our schools,” he said. “We’ve got to quit kicking it down the road.”

Even if the district received the full $60 million in a few years and even if the board chose to funnel all that money into daily maintenance, that would keep the district afloat only for so long.

“We could continue what we’re doing for 20 more years,” Hunter said. “And then imagine what those schools will look like in 20 years.”

He also pointed out that while the board promised to look at Knox, it is not the district’s worst school. Hunter said several schools in the Southern district, which he represents, are in as bad or worse shape.

“There’s prisons that are better,” He said. “And it’s ugly, and it’s scary, and you could have good haunted houses in some of them. Maybe that’s a fundraiser.”

Miller suggested that rather than building entirely new schools, the district could consolidate students into the newest schools and make additions to those, if needed.

The board spent a long time discussing whether it would be better to have the staff bring back recommendations for closing schools, consolidation or other strategies at its October or November business meeting. Eventually, they agreed to revisit the issue at the Nov. 26 meeting.

The board also will hear an architect’s recommendations for renovation or rebuilding of Knox Middle School.

In other business, the board approved as much as $239,000 to pay to have off-duty law officers at local elementary schools for four hours a day four days a week for the remainder of the school year.

Contact reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264. 

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