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School closures on pause, but capital, maintenance issues still a concern for RSS

SALISBURY — Growing capital and maintenance needs continue to weigh heavy on Rowan-Salisbury Schools despite a recent Board of Education decision to pause talks of consolidation and school closures.

In a presentation to the board Monday, Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon said the system could be close to $2 million over budget in unexpected maintenance costs for the 2018-19 fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“It’s unlikely this is a one-time event,” Herndon said. “We are continuing to see escalating maintenance, costs and I don’t think that’s going to abate.”

The two largest sources of the $2 million deficit in unexpected spending are heating and air conditioning maintenance and service costs and “catching up on long-overdue deferred maintenance efforts.”

The latter, said Herndon, include items that have been left indefinitely on maintenance to-do lists becoming more costly to repair as time progressed.

“We need to get caught up,” she said.

Herndon said the system would likely have to leverage money from the fund balance or savings to cover this year’s overspend. But, she said, the system is not in a place to continue to do so for similar costs in coming years.

If nothing changes with the school system’s surplus of school sites, she said, the system will need to be exceedingly careful to budget for maintenance issues.

“I think it’s impossible to predict not just what’s going to go wrong but how much is going to go wrong,” said school board member Travis Allen. “We need to proceed with what we know is the problem.”

The problem, he said, was that the system has too many schools to be able to afford to adequately maintain them — something he called a shortcoming of the school board, both past and present.

“We haven’t closed an old school,” he said. “This situation is not going to change until we change.”

But according to board Chairman Josh Wagner, the pause on consolidation and school closures is the result of funding uncertainty at the county level.

“I don’t think there’s other folks at the county level that have stepped up to support us,” Wagner said, adding that there are specific reasons why. “We have a responsibility. We know full well what the issues are. We need to close and get rid of some of our schools. But it’s very difficult to close schools without building new ones.”

He said the county had suggested putting off consolidation efforts and pursuing a new career and technical education center.

But, Wagner said, he understands that funding at the county level is a complex matter: “There are a lot of folks at the table with their hands out looking for help.”

Assistant Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann said some capital project funds are outstanding from the county because of its funding schedule. They include funding for two new HVAC systems at the Borth and West Rowan gymnasiums, for example.

He said the system is doing what it can to line up contractors “so they’ll be on go by the time the money drops.”

But Allen expressed interest in meeting these needs sooner, asking if it would be possible to use the fund balance to temporarily finance the work, saying student athletes have been suffering heat exhaustion under current conditions.

Vann said speeding up the process could be a possibility after certain, necessary logistical steps.

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