Organizers demand fair treatment in Overton-Knox school board discussion

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 17, 2019

By Liz Moomey

SALISBURY — Those opposed to the closure of Overton Elementary School joined forces Saturday and met to discuss their concerns.

The North Carolina A. Philip Randolph Institute, a social progress group, facilitated the conversation on Saturday morning. And those in attendance Saturday said they planned plan to show up to Monday’s 5 p.m. school board meeting in support of parents and teachers.

Jonathan Chamberlain, who works at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, has two kids at Overton. He acknowledged that the county schools are significantly below capacity, but there needs to be a better solution than closing Overton. Chamberlain was previously the director of design for schools in Orange County, Florida

“We have too many elementary schools seats,” Chamberlain said. “They do need to consolidate. I don’t think anyone in the Overton-Knox community is saying ‘Don’t knock our school down. Don’t mix us with other students.’ We just want an appropriate solution to be treated fairly as they have done with some of the others.”

Chamberlain said the board hasn’t considered the demographics of the school in their study.

The school board has proposed closing Overton as part of a planned $26 million renovation of Knox Middle School. Those opposed to Overton’s closure are specifically advocating for a K-8 school that combines Knox and Overton instead of renovating Knox alone.

Corey Hill, who is president of United Auto Workers Local 3520, said the Overton-Knox school community has been left behind while the other schools in the county have received resources and funds.

“It doesn’t look good for Rowan County when we can build schools on every end of the county … except when we come to the areas that are the most impoverished areas, the most depressed areas and areas that have more minorities, but we can’t get a new school,” Hill said.

Pastor Anthony Smith said the board’s plan is an example systemic racism.

“The fact that they have been building new schools around the county but for some reason policy-wise, resource-wise has not been able to pour capital resources this way,” Smith said. “What is that? What’s the priority there?”

Smith said the closure will traumatize the children.

“You are disconnecting them from a stable environment,” Smith said. “Many of them, this may be the only stable environment that they have during the day, and so you’re taking them from that situation, dealing with what they’re dealing with in their neighborhoods and their communities, and you put them in places they don’t even know about.”

April Muhammad, an assistant teacher at Overton, painted a picture of the school and those inside it. Muhammad called the students “her babies.” The turnover teacher rate has been extremely low, she said. The school also offers resources for students with disabilities, she said. 

The school board is not considering the little things that affect the children, Muhammad said. The principals have washed students’ uniforms or driven the students places.

Elizabeth Trick, an architect, has two kids — one at Overton and another at Knox. Trick said the informal relationships of the two schools are important, saying many students will walk over to the other school for after-school activities.

Fiscally, she said, the school system’s situation is gloom-and-doom, but Trick said she thinks the Knox-Overton situation is opportunity for the board to do something innovative. 

Community activist Ash Love posed a question for the school board.

“The question I have for the school board is ‘Are we thinking about the kids?’” Love said. “Are we actually considering the mental, emotional impact that a circumstance such as this could have on students?’”

Danielle Brown, NC APRI Piedmont chapter president, said what is happening in Rowan County is happening across the state. Brown said she wants people to stand up for the community by showing up to Monday’s meeting and bringing people to attend.

Smith also said school closures are happening in other communities.

“You’re seeing this all across the nation: school closures in the name of fiscal responsibility,” he said. “The schools that are often times affected are typically schools that are predominately children of color, specifically black students. This has to be named in the debate.”

Muhammad said the superintendent told the teachers how they should conduct themselves at Monday’s meeting.

In a phone interview Saturday afternoon, Superintendent Lynn Moody said she did meet with Overton staff and gave them recommendations about how to speak if they wanted at the meeting. Moody said she gave advice to practice their comments and be clear in a professional manner.

She said there would be no repercussions for teachers who speak.

“No one should be afraid of losing their job or being punished in any way,” Moody said.

The meeting is at 5 p.m. Monday at the Wallace Educational Forum, at 500 N. Main Street. Public comment will be at the start of the meeting.