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Plan would shutter Faith Elementary, move CTE school into North Rowan High

SALISBURY — As he presented a plan that would shutter Faith Elementary School at the end of the current school year, school board Chairman Josh Wagner on Monday asked the crowd of people in attendance to consider some numbers.

There are 19 elementary schools in the Rowan-Salisbury Schools and about 2,500 empty seats. With an average elementary school enrollment of 443, Wagner said, the number of empty seats is roughly equal to five and a half spare schools.

Meanwhile, there are 11 elementary schools built more than 50 years ago, nine built more than 75 years ago and six built more than 90 years ago. The school system has capital needs of nearly $150 million, Wagner said.

Faith Elementary, in particular, has the highest cost per square foot and per student for electricity among elementary schools identified by a capital needs committee as being in poor condition. The school, built more than 90 years ago, has about $3.4 million in capital needs.

Using those numbers, Wagner proposed a $60 million plan that would close Faith Elementary at the end of the school year, move Faith students to Koontz Elementary and move about 240 Koontz students to nearby schools. Koontz would retain its name but likely have a combination of students and teachers from both schools, he said.

The plan would also close Enochville Elementary at the end of the 2019-20 school year; spend $20 million to renovate Knox Middle School in the 2020-21 school year; allocate $20 million to renovate North Rowan High School, ending closure conversations; place a career and technical center at North while keeping it operational as a high school; and spend about $19.5 million for any existing capital needs across the district.

A final part of Wagner’s proposal, to which no funding is attached yet, would pursue the creation of combined east and south Rowan elementary schools to begin construction in the 2023-24 school year. A systemwide redistricting would occur in conjunction with the new schools.

The proposal is a departure from previous plans considered by the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education. A plan presented late last year, for example, has a cost of $117 million for the first tier. Wagner’s plan would take advantage of $60 million in debt that would be paid off in 2020 or 2021 to fund the many changes.

While Wagner’s plan is wide-ranging, the potential closure of Faith Elementary drew the most attention, as dozens of parents, teachers and residents of the small town showed up at Monday’s school board meeting.

Tough vote

Following jeers from the crowd and passionate speeches from school board members, the board voted 5-1-1 to take the first step in Wagner’s plan — gathering information about Faith’s closure for a public hearing to be held at a yet-to-be-determined date. A public hearing must be held in advance of the closure.

Previous school board members, Wagner said, did not make needed decisions about closing schools. He said Rowan County residents support school consolidation as long as their school is not affected.

“The answer is always just not me, just not me. And, folks, I don’t want to do this. None of us like this, but we have got to do something,” Wagner said. “Because other boards have not had the backbone to look folks in the face and say, ‘These are the hard facts; this is the truth,’ here we are.”

Voting to take the first step in Wagner’s proposal were Wagner, Vice Chairwoman Susan Cox, Alisha Byrd-Clark, Dean Hunter and Kevin Jones. Board member Travis Allen voted “no” and said a standalone CTE high school is a better idea than placing one at North Rowan High. Board member Jean Kennedy was in attendance but did not vote.

Superintendent Lynn Moody said she will talk to staff at Faith Elementary and develop a staffing plan to be presented at the school board’s next meeting. Moody said she feels confident that no staff member in the district will lose his or her job in the shuffle.

Like those from Faith in attendance Monday, Moody wore red, but she declined to say whether that was intentional.

Cox, whose district includes Faith Elementary School, apologized to those in attendance that past school boards did not make tough decisions.

“You have the luxury of ignoring the facts and figures, but I do not,” Cox said. “I have heard all of your voices. However, I was selected by everyone in this county and I must represent everyone in this county. My responsibility is to the county, everyone, all the students, all the parents.”

Wagner encouraged the crowd not to leave Monday’s meeting saying Faith Elementary School would be closed. There’s still a process before the final vote can be taken, he said.

“But you’re going to close the school,” one audience member shouted.

During Wagner’s speech about the shift from Faith to Koontz, a number of audience members said “low-performing school” — a reference to the fact that Koontz test scores are among the lowest in Rowan-Salisbury Schools. He responded directly, defending students at Koontz and saying tough calls facing the district are strictly about the cost to maintain aging buildings.

“I don’t give a dern about low-performing. Don’t give me that. Because, let me tell you something, those kids are no different than your kids,” Wagner said.

Not over yet

Just as Wagner stressed that Monday’s vote was not final, many people in attendance said, “It’s not over yet.” Those hoping to stave off Faith’s closure plan to meet at 3 p.m. Sunday at the Rowan County Fairgrounds, Faith Alderman Randall Barger said.

“We’re not done,” Barger told those streaming out of the school board central office.

Tim Williams, who has helped organize those opposed to Faith Elementary School’s closure, was emotional after Monday’s vote, saying the town could lose a part of its culture.

“You have instilled in you in this wonderful civic pride that wells up in your heart,” said Williams, a former mayor of Faith. “Others folks might say they realize it, but having grown up in Faith, it is just a little bit different.”

Barger said he believes people in Faith would be interested in opening a charter school if RSS follows through with closure plans.

“We were out at the school this morning and 70 percent of the people we talked to said they would pull their children out of the school, Koontz,” Barger said. “And, listen, this is not about Koontz. They have wonderful teachers and wonderful children, … It’s just that we want our community school.”

In the audience Monday was Rowan County Commissioner Mike Caskey, who said there would not be a role for county government if RSS chooses to close Faith Elementary. However, Caskey, who lives in Enochville, said he does not understand how the school board would keep students and teachers from that community together in a move — something Wagner stressed would occur in the transition from Faith to Koontz.

“It’s just all a mess,” Caskey said.

Williams said he understands the difficult decisions facing the Rowan-Salisbury school board, but that he would like for it to “think outside the box a little more than what they are doing.”

“We have our work cut out for us,” he said. “You have to go through a public hearing. … Nothing can happen until the fat lady sings, I guess.”

News intern Samuel Motley contributed to this story. 

Contact Editor Josh Bergeron at 704-797-4248.

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