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School board pumps brakes on school closures

SALISBURY — In front of a room filled to overflowing with concerned parents and staff members, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday voted to pump the brakes on two looming school closures.

Talks to close Faith Elementary and Enochville Elementary schools began in March, and each faced the possibility of shutdown at the end of the 2018-19 school year. The board scheduled public hearings for both during its March 26 meeting.

The first hearing, regarding Faith Elementary School, was originally scheduled at 6 p.m. Monday. It was canceled Friday as board members met with local legislators to discuss funding for the districtwide renewal project.

After heated talks among board members and a nearly 40-minute closed session Monday, the board voted to cancel the Enochville hearing scheduled for April 8. The board will still hold its regularly scheduled work session that day.

Monday’s decision to cancel the hearing followed remarks by county commissioners Chairman Greg Edds. The county had expected a 10% increase in property tax values during this year’s revaluation, Edds said, providing more money to filter toward the school system.

“Instead, that number came back at 5%,” said Edds.

But, Edds said, the county may still be able to provide additional funding that should be taken into consideration before making any decisions about consolidation.

“We do believe that in our upcoming July budget, we can provide some additional funding,” he said.

Edds also said that the county would finish payments on a 2002-issued $60 million bond in 2021, giving the county the capacity to borrow the same amount once more.

He said the county commissioners and school board would be working together as partners with this information to reach a solution to Rowan’s current education needs. At the top of the issues is Rowan’s 2,500 empty school seats.

“We have kicked the can down the road for decades, and we can no longer ignore the challenges that we as a community and as a system are facing,” he said. “Even if we fixed the capital issues, we’d still have to deal with the issues of having so many extra seats.”

School board member Dean Hunter said the board had received more information since its March 26 decision to hold the public hearings. “We’re working overtime to find the right thing to do for the community,” Hunter said.

Scheduling a public hearing for Monday would be pointless, he said, in light of new information that more money could be available sooner or that “other alternative financial opportunities” could arise.

Board member Travis Allen expressed hesitancy about canceling the hearing with no finite number or budgetary promise coming from the county. Four immediately identified projects for consolidation would cost $98 million, he said.

These projects would be the construction of a consolidated East and South Rowan elementary school, the upfitting of a current site for a career and technical education center, and the rebuilding of Knox Middle School.

“Any number less than $98 million, then you have to lose projects,” said Allen. “Maybe instead of closing schools, we need to pick two projects we want to do and focus capital funding on those.”

Allen also suggested proceeding with the public meetings though moving closure dates out a year or more as more information becomes available.

Board Chairman Josh Wagner said that moving forward with the public hearings didn’t feel right when considering that data influencing decisions would likely change.

“If the board is going to build a new school, even if it’s three to four years down the road, do we move these students just to move them again?” Wagner said.

Jean Kennedy said she felt the board had already discussed priorities and that these continued to change.

“We can’t do that. We cannot,” Kennedy said. “It’s not as simple as some of you seem to think it is. We’re talking about moving children, not buying a different type of apple or ordering more eggs.”

To applause, Kennedy said she is “tired of a few people meeting with a few people and then coming back to tell us what they have decided,” inferring that she had heard of budget talks between the board and county commissioners only after the fact.

Wagner said each board member had been called about meetings and no members had been left out before Kennedy called for orders of the day and the group moved into closed session.

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