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School board considers closing Overton Elementary permanently before Knox Middle renovations

SALISBURY — The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education on Monday asked the district staff to prepare a proposal to close Overton Elementary School permanently as part of Knox Middle School’s renovation.

The closure could not happen before the school board holds a public hearing.

Knox Middle’s $26 million renovation, approved in September by the board, would require the relocation of its students for two years. The renovation involves demolishing three classroom buildings, construction a two-story classroom building in their place, and renovating any buildings that aren’t replaced, including the gym.

The renovation would involve replacing everything except the shell of the building, necessitating the relocation.

As a solution to that requirement, the school board settled on the idea of moving Knox students to adjacent Overton, which would require five additional mobile units, and permanently dispersing Overton students to nearby elementary schools with capacity for more students — Hanford-Dole, Isenberg and North Rowan.

Alisha Byrd-Clark, the board member whose district includes Knox and Overton, was the lone “no” vote. In light of Overton’s permanent closure, Byrd-Clark said she thought it was premature to narrow the six plans considered Monday to one and that she would have preferred more discussion on the matter.

Byrd-Clark expressed a preference for an option that would have built a campus of mobile units on the football field between Knox Middle School and Overton. That proposal would cost $2 million, but Byrd-Clark said she thought it was the best decision for the school and its students.

Byrd-Clark’s preference, however, was eliminated early during Monday’s discussions. Only board member Kevin Jones said he was concerned that a proposal Knox’s representative liked was being eliminated.

“She represents the area. I think it would be foolish to pull it off completely,” Jones said.

The favored proposal — moving Knox students to Overton — would bring Hanford-Dole, Isenberg and North Rowan elementary schools over 90% capacity. It’s estimated to cost just $100,000 to implement and Knox students would be able to use the school’s existing gym and athletic fields during a large portion of the construction phase.

Assistant Superintendent for Operations Anthony Vann said crews would wait to renovate the gym until the end of construction.

Because there would be one fewer school in the system, Vann said, the favored proposal would also result in a permanent operational cost savings.

The proposal would require an estimated 10 mobile units to house Knox students, but that number is lessened by the fact that five are already at the Overton site. Rowan-Salisbury Schools staff would move mobile units that would have otherwise been sold or discarded to Overton from elsewhere in the district.

Before completing the proposal and shutting Overton permanently, the school board would need to hold a public hearing, which could occur before the end of the year.

Superintendent Lynn Moody asked whether the school board wanted to hold a hearing to close the school at its lone meeting in November — Nov. 25. But Chairman Josh Wagner raised recent memories of attempts to close schools as a reason to move slowly.

“We need to just relax a little bit and make sure we have everything covered before we jump into a public hearing,” Wagner said.

Most recently, the school board in the spring attempted to close Faith Elementary School, which was met by parents and other Faith residents with vocal opposition. The school board chose to back off that proposal after Wagner said he spoke with members of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners about funding available for capital projects. And when County Manager Aaron Church unveiled his budget in May, it contained $75 million in new capital funding for the school system over a two-year period.

But the school board has been down the school closure road before. Because many schools remain below capacity, consolidation and closures have been hot topics for years. Residents of the North Rowan community successfully protested the closure of their high school in late 2018 and earlier this year.

Those were facts board member Travis Allen alluded to Monday when he said the board often doesn’t “have the fortitude to continue down that road.”

Other options considered by the board Monday included:

• Moving Knox students to North Rowan High School, utilizing empty seats and installing two mobile units, at a cost of $700,000 over 24 months.

• Using open seats at North Rowan High and middle schools, with seventh- and eighth-graders in the high school and sixth-graders at the middle school. That proposal didn’t include any cost estimates but came with the con that Knox students and staff would not be in one location.

• Relocating students to a temporary site such as the former Kmart building on East Innes Street or West End Plaza, formerly the Salisbury Mall. Vann said he spoke to Church about possibly moving students to West End Plaza.

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