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My turn, Josh Wagner: School system’s consolidation results from misguided spending

By Josh Wagner

Needless to say, the past two weeks have been volatile for Rowan-Salisbury Schools.

Personally, I have spoken with dozens of folks by phone, email and in person. Generally speaking, the questions and opinions have been valid and widely similar. With that said, I understand much of the emotion and passion pertaining to “community schools.”

However, I do feel that the emotion of the consolidation issue may have overshadowed a key piece of the puzzle.

I spoke to a parent by phone last week. She was very kind and understanding of the looming capital concerns. However, she had several valid questions around consolidation, the process and the timeline. One theme that was present in her comments was the idea that consolidation is largely based on the inefficiency of older buildings. While this is certainly an important consideration, I argued that it was not the catalyst for this discussion.

The sad reality, which is still being overlooked, is that our existing buildings are being poorly utilized. Sure, efficiency is vital. However, I would argue that paying for utilities and repairs on old buildings that do not have enough students to fill the seats is irresponsible, regardless of energy costs.

Take Faith Elementary for example. The RSS Capital Committee identified the school as one of the eight lowest-rated elementary schools in the county. Furthermore, Faith had the highest energy per square foot cost and energy per student cost of all eight schools. However, that is only one piece of the puzzle. Faith has a capacity of 440 students. They currently have approximately 346 students that attend.

That leaves approximately 100 open seats. Furthermore, out of the 346 students there, only 300 or so students who live within the district for  Faith Elementary. So, while I agree that Faith is a great school in a great community, the community itself can only fill approximately 68 percent of its own seats.

What’s worse, there are four other schools within an eight-mile circle of Faith Elementary. Including Faith, these five schools have more than 700 empty seats. Finally, Faith currently has more than $3 million in identified capital needs. All of this leads to one glaring question. Is it responsible for the Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education to spend millions of capital dollars on a school that is well under capacity, one of the oldest in the county and sits 3.9 miles down the road from the second newest school in RSS? I say no.

Do I disregard students and staff? No.

Do I discount the value of a “community school?” No.

Do I discount the passion that the Faith community has for its school? No.

However, I also do not discount the fact that taxes paid by people across the county provide capital funds required to maintain Faith and all other RSS schools. It is unfair for me to assume an entire county wants to spend this kind of money on every school in every community. In fact, many folks have voiced concerns about pouring endless amounts of money into schools that are older, inefficient and underutilized.

While I am a board member who will fight for public education, I realize money isn’t free or unlimited. Furthermore, I acknowledge that within education there is often a mindset of “no amount of money is enough for students.” Unfortunately, that isn’t responsible.

If RSS continues to ask for more money each year from our county commissioners for operating and capital needs while also acknowledging that our schools are seriously underutilized, we have a responsibility to the county to find ways to reduce our overhead.

This is a concept that we all certainly practice in our personal lives. I would also argue that many consider the idea of uncapped spending as a key issue in government today. If we as a county want to be able to build new, more efficient, more student-suitable facilities, we must start by reducing the underutilized inventory that we have.

I admit it’s tough, but I also believe it is the only responsible choice. Sadly, previous boards have overlooked existing capital needs, misappropriated money to build new schools that we did not need and refused to redistrict because of the hard work required.

As a current Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education member, I say, “I am sorry for those decisions.” While I can’t change the past, I can certainly be a part of a board that strives to improve our future.

I close with this question. Is your personal budget limitless? If not, I believe that a budget dependent on tax dollars shouldn’t be either.

Josh Wagner is chairman of the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the representative for the East Area seat, which includes East Rowan High, Erwin Middle, Granite Quarry Elementary, Morgan Elementary, Rockwell Elementary and Shive Elementary schools.

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