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School board presents plans for school closings, consolidations

By Maggie Blackwell

For the Salisbury Post

SALISBURY — In an unprecedented austerity move, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday night heard a recommendation to close six elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools over a period of time.

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann made the suggestions after a year of work by a capital needs committee. The committee had 45 members, including residents, community leaders, and all the mayors in the county.

The proposal is now up for community input.

Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Smith explained that effective immediately, the system website has a “pop out” that informs the public about the proposal. The site offers an informational video and the schedule of public meetings.

Smith said more than 40,000 ConnectEd automated phone calls would go out to advise parents of the proposal and encourage their participation.

The recommendation is organized in three tiers, with Tier 1 being the most immediate. It could be accomplished over five years, according to Vann.

Tiers 2 and 3 may take between five and 20 years to complete, depending on public input.

Under the Tier 1 plan,  a new kindergarten through eight-grade building would be constructed near Salisbury High School, closing and demolishing Knox Middle School and Overton Elementary School and selling the property.

The total cost for this piece is estimated at $56 million.

Tier 1 also includes closing Henderson school and demolishing it and relocating the Alternative Learning Center to property the system owns on Heilig Road near the school bus depot.

The cost of this piece is estimated at $4 million.

Tier 1 includes closing North Rowan High School and demolishing it and reassigning students to other high schools. The building has a capacity of 1,100 students, but enrollment has declined over the years from 697 in 2014-15 to 541 students this year.

Demolition of the school is estimated to cost $700,000.

More Tier 1 items include creating a vocational high school at Koontz Elementary School at a cost of $10 million and a new East Rowan Elementary School to replace Faith, Rockwell and Granite Quarry elementary schools, which would be demolished.

Classroom space would be added to Shive Elementary.

This portion comes in at $46.5 million.

The grand total for Tier 1 is $117.2 million and could extend through 2021, Vann said.

Vann said construction estimates can change significantly over months or years, and the numbers are only estimates.

Tier 2 recommends construction of a new South Rowan Elementary School and closing and demolishing Enochville, China Grove and Landis Elementary schools. It also suggests adding classrooms to Millbridge and Knollwood elementary schools.

The cost for this phase is $61.5 million.

Additionally, Tier 2 includes construction of South Middle School, replacing Corriher-Lipe and China Grove Middle schools, which would be demolished.

The cost for this portion is $63 million.

The total cost for Tier 2 comes in at $124.5 million.

Tier 3 is less detailed because it extends so far into the future, but it includes renovation or replacement of Bostian Elementary, Hurley Elementary, Knollwood Elementary, Morgan Elementary, Mount Ulla Elementary and Salisbury High.

Board Chairman Josh Wagner prefaced the discussion with remarks of his own.

“I caution our school board and citizens, this proposal is a starting point,” Wagner said. “Much of it takes money we do not have. I urge you to remain calm and work with us. We want to put this plan together with you.”

The school board discussed the proposal but did not vote on any part of it.

Six community input sessions are scheduled through the month of December. Each session has an identical agenda and seeks to gain public input on the task of developing a building inventory that the district can afford to maintain.

A video on the school system website explains why these steps are necessary. It will be shown at each community input session.

School board response to the proposal was measured. Dean Hunter asked if the school system receives enough funding today to maintain the current inventory of buildings. Vann said it does not.

Hunter clarified that the recommendation is from a public committee based on the direction of the school board and it had met all the board’s requests, including a detailed inventory of school buildings. School board members agreed that they do not have the money to undertake all the work in the proposal but would have to seek bonds or other funding.

At the same time, they said the system does not have the money to maintain the current buildings, either.

A large audience attended the meeting.

Wagner encouraged them be positive on the proposal.

“Please be sure to share facts. If someone says we have voted to close a school, please tell them that is not true. In January we will have follow-up meetings and may be able to tweak this or that idea that comes up in the community meetings.

“We’ll have to communicate with the county and find money; this will be a long process.

“If you have an idea, find a way to put it into plausible thought and share it in your community meetings. This is the largest crowd we’ve had at a school board meeting in six years, and we’ve got to have people help us figure it out. Don’t let people pull you down,” Wagner said. “If someone’s negative, walk away and we’ll move forward and figure all this out.”

Wagner also offered to distribute information to the rest of the board for anyone who is unable to attend the community meetings.

The community input sessions will be held at Salisbury High on Dec. 4; East Rowan High, Dec. 5; Carson High, Dec.11; South Rowan High, Dec. 12; West Rowan High, Dec. 18; and North Rowan High, Dec. 19.

All sessions will start at 5:30 p.m. and end at 6:30 p.m..

In other school board business:

• The board heard audit results from Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon. The school system received the highest opinion available.

• Human Resources Director Kristi Rhone clarified the new renewal pathway for hiring teachers. Core subject English, math, science and social studies teachers would be required to have a four-year degree. Teachers of enhancement subjects may only have a two-year degree or relevant job experience. The board passed the initiative unanimously.

• Vann presented the school priority list of heating and air needs. A prior list of all schools needing equipment totaled $38 million. The new, shorter list totaled a little over $8 million. Because some of the schools on the list are also in the capital consolidation plan, the board agreed to table further discussion until it can address which schools to keep. The board did vote to ask Vann to talk to the County commissioners about $6.4 million available for heating and air needs.

• Alesia Burnette, director of accountability, presented the results of a recent survey to select the instruction calendar for 2019-20. The board voted to ask Burnette to do another survey asking parents to choose between the top two contenders. The vote was 6-1 with Travis Allen voting Nay.

• The Board recognized Richard Miller with a plaque and thanks for eight years of service to the system. Miller did not seek re-election this year. His last meeting would be in December, but he is unable to attend that meeting.

“My heart and soul have been in public education for almost 50 years now,” Miller said. “What is right for the community and our citizens is what is good for our children. I believe we are truly one system now, finally. We are no longer this building and that building; we are one system. I believe whatever leadership I provided helped make that our happen.

“I admonish our board and future boards to keep a good eye on our resources. We can’t afford to keep schools open with too many seats and too few children. I do believe I’m leaving this a better place than when I started.”

• In public comment, Spencer Mayor Jim Gobble asked the board to retain North Rowan High School in his town.

“Our location is as good or better (for a vocational school) than the proposed Koontz location. We are minutes away from the county seat of Salisbury,” Gobble said. “Please consider the impact closing a high school would have on a small town. A vocational school on the NRHS campus could be a model for the state of North Carolina. Our neighbors in South Carolina have been in the business of vocational education since 1968. They are in the business of preparing students for later life. One size does not fit all. Some kids like to work with their hands.”

• Also in public comment, four teachers from South Rowan High School asked the school board to reconsider Option C in the school calendar for 2019-20.

More information on the Capital Consolidation can be found at rssed.org.

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