Ask Us: Maintenance is big factor in RSS budget shortfall

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 26, 2019

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to

SALISBURY — On May 13, Chief Financial Officer Carol Herndon said that Rowan-Salisbury Schools would be close to $2 million over budget for the 2018-19 fiscal year because of maintenance costs.

A reader has asked how that shortfall came about.

Heating and air-conditioning improvements were the largest single expense on last year’s maintenance budget, said Anthony Vann, assistant superintendent of operations. Heat-and-air maintenance and service costs were also large contributors to the shortfall.

Many schools in the district are old, and their HVAC systems were installed about the same time, said Vann. Because of that, many of the systems need repairs at the same time.

“The HVAC breakdowns were considerably more than expected,” said Christopher P. Nuckolls, director of construction for the school system. “Unfortunately, the age and conditions of the systems played a large role in their breakdowns. The overall costs … for replacements parts and labor continue to rise with the economy and the age of the systems, which makes it difficult, in some cases, to get parts.”

In addition to the age and condition of heating and air systems, school administrators cite the number of buildings that must be maintained.

RSS has too many buildings to upkeep, said Travis Allen, a member of the Board of Education. Because of this, maintenance needs have been building up over the past decade or more, he said.

The 2017 capital needs report for the district found that there were about $208 million in needs across the district.

“We have a lot of tough choices to make on how to spend our capital funding,” Vann said.

School officials are having to “choose the best you can,” Allen said. Priorities include heating and air to make sure students are comfortable, Vann said. Those needs can’t always wait.

How maintenance is financed also plays a role.

The school system has a standard maintenance budget, but that is different than the larger capital budget, said Josh Wagner, school board chairman.

RSS has more than $120 million in capital needs, Wagner said, largely due to maintenance costs for major problems and the number of schools.

That capital money comes from the county, so the school system has to work with what it gets.

“Our district operated aging school building facilities that require approximately $5.4 million in capital replacement each year,” said Herndon. “Last year, we received $2.6 million in capital funding from Rowan County. The related funding shortfall of $2.8 million meant we had to spent more operating dollars to repair current (and aged) equipment.”

RSS is still working to catch up on maintenance. The school board has approved $6.5 million for heating and air projects, Vann said.

Moreover, the county commissioners are still working to address needs of the district. For the 2019-20 fiscal year, RSS has $2.71 million from the county for capital needs, said Rita Foil, public information officer for the schools.

The money can be used for repairs or new construction. However, maintenance costs are still escalating, Herndon said.

The county commissioners also have a new loan that is to be used for capital improvements to schools.

The 10-year, $7.1 million loan is through STI Institutional and Government Inc. and was approved in July. Erwin Middle School is used as collateral, but the loan won’t affect daily operations of that school.

The money from the loan is set to be used on HVAC renovations at Landis Elementary, Erwin Middle, Knollwood Elementary, West Rowan Middle, Mount Ulla Elementary, South Rowan High, China Grove Middle, Bostian Elementary, China Grove Middle, Corriher-Lipe Middle, North Rowan High, and West Rowan High.

In the long term, some officials think the current number of buildings owned by RSS is not sustainable.

Allen thinks the best option would be to consolidate and be better able to maintain the remaining schools, but he noted that he cannot speak for the entire school board.

Wagner also thinks that consolidation is the solution, although he admits that it might not be a popular option.

Nuckolls has been focusing on preventative maintenance in terms of plumbing, HVAC and electrical systems with the money that is available. He says it helps extend the life of systems and prevent major breakdowns.

“This also helps in discovering potential problems and fixing them ahead of the breakdowns,” Nuckolls said. “The exhaustive work our department did this past year has definitely made a difference in how our buildings have responded so far this year. Our goal is to continue our push for preventative maintenance, renovations, systems upgrades and new construction.”

“It’s all about choices,” said Vann of the budget this year. “We have to continue to be as frugal as we can with our money, but at the end of the day, we have to make sure our schools are operational.”