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2018’s top news: Schools renewal and consolidation, Erica Parsons prosecution top the list

SALISBURY — Education affects the lives of some 19,000 Rowan County public school students — plus their families — and it dominated Salisbury Post headlines in 2018.

Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ new renewal status came out as No. 1 in the Post news staff’s annual vote on the Top 10 stories of the year, followed closely by the system’s proposed consolidation plan.

But there was plenty of other news, too. Filling out the Top 10 are:

3. The prosecution of Casey and Sandy Parsons in the murder of their adopted daughter, Erica Parsons.

4. The birth of a parade — the ‘Tis the Season Spectacular — to usher in the Christmas season in Salisbury and Spencer.

5. The lease of the city’s Fibrant broadband system to Hotwire Communications.

6. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision not to hear Rowan County’s appeal in a lawsuit about officials’ prayers at public meetings.

7. Extreme weather, from heavier-than-usual snowfalls to tropical storms that left thousands without power.

8. The ongoing battle against opioid overdoses and addiction.

9. Kannapolis’ momentum toward creating a new downtown for the former “towel city.”

10. The rebuilding of the Salisbury Police Department.

School renewal, consolidation

The seeds for Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ renewal status were sown as pressure mounted for low-performing schools to raise student achievement levels. Several schools sought to join the state’s “charter restarts” — schools granted the flexibility public charter schools are allowed to exercise. Free of the usual state requirements, the schools have more control over staffing, calendar, curriculum and budget, among other things.

China Grove Elementary, for example, got the school board’s permission to become an arts-integrated school. At North Rowan High School, classes started two weeks earlier in August than most of the rest of the system so its calendar could better align with that of Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, where dozens of North students take classes.

Rowan-Salisbury schools seeking charter-restart status went from a few to 13 to 16 — nearly half the schools in the district. That’s when the General Assembly approved legislation that would make Rowan-Salisbury the state’s first “renewal system,” with all schools adopting the charter restart or renewal model.

Legislators and the state superintendent of public instruction attended an August kickoff for the renewal experiment in Salisbury.

“We have great appreciation for what you have done, what you are doing and what you will be doing,” Rep. Craig Horn said. “You are truly pioneers, no question about it.”

School officials are using 2018-19 as a time for planning, with changes to come in the next school year.

Just as county residents began to absorb what renewal might mean, the Board of Education revived discussion of a school closing and consolidation plan that would affect about a dozen schools. Maintaining 35 campuses at an average cost of $153,000 each per year adds up to $5.35 million in annual capital needs, far more than the $2.4 million budgeted. Meanwhile, the schools have thousands of empty seats.

The system held sessions around the county in December to share information and get public input. Participants ranged from a quiet group in western Rowan, where Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools have already been combined, to a defiant crowd at North Rowan High School, which may close.

Meanwhile, classes start next week at the newly consolidated West Rowan Elementary in Cleveland.

Erica Parsons

Third on the list of top stories was the pursuit of justice for young Erica Parsons, reported missing in 2013 but most likely killed in 2011.

An autopsy released early in the year confirmed stories of Erica’s physical abuse at the hands of adoptive parents Casey and Sandy Parsons. Erica, who would have been 13 in 2013, suffered more than a dozen broken bones over a prolonged period of time before dying, being dismembered and buried in an unmarked grave in South Carolina.

“It’s haunted our county for several years now,” Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten said of Erica’s fate, speaking at a February news conference.

A Rowan County grand jury indicted Sandy and Casey Parsons on charges of first-degree murder, felony child abuse and concealment of death. District Attorney Brady Cook said she will seek the death penalty for them both.

Already in federal prison on fraud charges, the Parsonses were returned to Rowan County, and they remain in the Rowan County Detention Center awaiting trial.

‘Tis the Season Spectacular

Everyone loves a parade, it’s been said, but not everyone likes to organize one. That was the case in 2018 for the board of the Holiday Caravan, Salisbury’s Christmas parade for nearly six decades. After a clash in 2017 with members of PFLAG — Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — over whether they could ride a float, the Holiday Caravan board announced in late July that there would be no more Holiday Caravans.

After the initial shock, community volunteers went to work putting together a new parade, dubbed ‘Tis the Season Spectacular. Hen Henderlite and Shari Graham spearheaded the effort, lining up sponsors and recruiting a full parade lineup, including all six local high school bands. The spectacular followed the Holiday Caravan’s traditional route through Spencer and Salisbury on its traditional date, the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.

Without controversy or fanfare, both PFLAG and Salisbury Pride participated in the parade. Nancy Stanback was the grand marshal.

The Holiday Caravan is dead; long live ‘Tis the Season Spectacular.

New life for Fibrant? 

The Fibrant municipal broadband system’s ongoing drain on the city of Salisbury’s coffers began to reverse itself in 2018 as city voters agreed to lease the system to Hotwire Communications. The lease was the result of long study and debate, culminating in a public referendum in May 2018. Voters OK’d the lease 2,602 to 590, and the state’s Local Government Commission approved the deal.

The 20-year lease began on July 1, with Hotwire paying back the city a percentage of its revenue from its internet, video and phone services. Still, Salisbury is a long way from repaying the $33 million debt it owes on the system.

Hotwire intends to rebrand the system as Fision, its fiber-product brand. By early December, about 10 percent of Fibrant’s video customers had transitioned to Hotwire’s system, according to Jonathan Bullock, vice president of corporate development and government for Hotwire Communications.

Bullock said Hotwire will have a call center based in Salisbury with four customer service representatives, an account manager and a general manager, totaling more than 20 employees based in Salisbury.

Thirteen of the 16 Fibrant employees have stayed on with Hotwire.

A pass on prayer

The U.S. Supreme Court in June let stand a lower court ruling that found Rowan County commissioners’ practice of delivering Christian prayers before their public meetings unconstitutional.

The case goes back to 2013, when the ACLU sued the county on behalf of three residents who took issue with the practice: Nan Lund, Liesa Montag-Siegel and Robert Voelker. The case had since gone from appeal to appeal, with the full U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit in Richmond ruling against the county in 2017. It said the commissioners’ practice of leading the prayers themselves and inviting the audience to join, always in the Christian faith, violated the First Amendment by establishing Christianity as a preferred religion.

The decision is at odds with others concerning prayer in other parts of the country. The commissioners and others hoped the Supreme Court would hear their appeal and bring some clarity to the issue. The court declined to do so, with Justices Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas dissenting.

By emphasizing that the prayers in Rowan “are led by the legislators themselves, not by paid chaplains or guest ministers,” Thomas said, the 4th Circuit “failed to appreciate the long history of legislator-led prayer in this country, and it squarely contradicted a recent decision of the 6th Circuit.”

Extreme weather

Rowan County saw more than 6 inches of snow in both January and December of 2018, bookending a year full of weather extremes. The mercury started regularly rising above 90 in May, and an initially dry summer gave way to one of the wettest years on record. Some 63.5 inches of precipitation had fallen as of Dec. 26, according to local weather watchers — well short of the all-time record of 70.69 inches in 1929 but still far above average.

One summer storm sent water flooding into the entrance of the Wilson Smith Outpatient Center at Novant Health Rowan Medical Center.

For 2018’s above-average rainfall, you can also thank Florence and Michael, two hurricanes that battered the coast and, as tropical storms, dumped buckets of rain in Rowan County. Florence came with great warning and a week’s worth of preparation, dousing Rowan on Sept. 15. Less than a month later, Michael ripped through the Florida Panhandle and tore northward. When it hit Rowan as a tropical storm on Oct. 11, Michael sent trees crashing across the county, leaving thousands without power for several days.

Opioids

The opioid crisis that shocked Rowan County in 2017 kept making headlines in 2018 as the community came to grips with the epidemic and its impact on families. Commissioners voted to join a national lawsuit against opioid makers and distributors. Cardinal Innovations distributed 6,000 Naloxone kits to area agencies, and some credit the ready availability of the overdose-reversal drug with decreasing the number of overdoses seen at the local hospital.

The community gathered for Rowan County’s second opioids forum, where former addicts and the family members of people killed by opioids shared their stories. Keynote speaker Sam Quinones — author of “Dreamland: The True Story of America’s Opiate Epidemic” — urged local residents to take action.

“Counties are forming task forces; people are coming together and adding their own talents, energy and expertise,” he said. “It’s only through collaboration with each other that innovation comes.”

Kannapolis on the upswing

Kannapolis kicked off construction of a downtown sports and entertainment venue on Oct. 30 that city officials said would be more than a stadium for the Minor League Intimidators. “It is a catalyst to make things move and to get things happening faster. It is one of those things like nuclei that attract electrons,” Mayor Darrell Hinnant said.

That same week, Temerity Baseball, led by Andy Sandler of Temerity Capital Partners of Washington, announced that it had bought the Intimidators.

The city also agreed to extend water and sewer lines to the High Bridge site off Old Beatty Ford Road in Rowan County in exchange for voluntary annexation of what is expected to be a multiuse development. Said City Manager Mike Legg, “We view this location as a potential major economic anchor and job-creation node in our city and in southern Rowan County.”

Salisbury police strength

The Salisbury Police Department continued to rebuild in 2018, with new and diverse recruits coming on board. From Jan. 1, 2017, to mid-2018, new hires were 53 percent white men, 6 percent white women, 22 percent black men, 13 percent black women, 1 percent Asian men and 1 percent Hispanic men.

Chief Jerry Stokes vowed to solve open murder cases from 2015 and 2016. New foot patrols got positive reviews from residents. Crime-fighting strategies included data study and engagement. In August, the city was selected as a National Public Safety Partnership Diagnostic site. A U.S. Department of Justice assessment the Police Department received  indicated it needs to communicate better.

In July, Stokes told the City Council that the crime rate was up. By year’s end, though, the city had seen numbers drop in at least one crucial area: The city had six murders in 2018, compared to 10 the year before.

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