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Editorial: Board cannot simply say ‘no’ to school closure

In late 2018, it was North Rowan. In the spring, it was Faith. Now, it’s Overton Elementary.

The Rowan-Salisbury school board has proposed and backed off of two plans in the previous 12 months to shutter local schools without a decision about what comes next.

Overton may become the third if history is the guide, but the debate is more complicated than closure alone. And the community has already found a louder position from which to advocate its preferred option than North Rowan and Faith.

Opponents of closure want a K-8 school built on the site of Knox Middle and Overton instead of a $26 million renovation plan that would result in the elementary school’s closure. Four members of the Salisbury City Council (Brian Miller was absent from Tuesday’s meeting) say they’re supportive of the K-8 school effort. At the school board meeting Monday, Mayor Al Heggins gave a rousing speech saying the same. Meanwhile, County Commissioner Judy Klusman publicly endorsed a K-8 school in a “My Turn” in Tuesday’s Post (“Combined school good option for city’s future”).

The school board’s decision, regardless of public advocacy, ultimately comes down to funding. Yes, school board members must base their decision on what’s best for children and their future, but the school board has a finite amount of money with which it can pay for new schools.

The good news is that there’s enough money to build a K-8 school: county commissioners earlier this year promised RSS $75 million in capital funding — $15 million in the current fiscal year and $60 million in 2020-21. A decision to invest in a K-8 school, however, would sap 70% of RSS’ allotted capital funding, about $53 million, leaving it with a nice chunk of change by any measure but not enough to build a consolidated school elsewhere in Rowan County and make more significant progress toward minimizing its number of open seats.

So what’s next?

The school board must judge whether it’s content to fulfill its promise in a 2014 mediation agreement with county commissioners and repair Knox Middle School or make a much more significant investment in Salisbury.

The former will be unpopular and save money for other projects — enough to consolidate schools elsewhere in Rowan. The latter would be an ambitious and exciting investment for parents, students, the school system and the city of Salisbury.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education has once again found itself at a crossroads. This time, the board cannot simply say “no” to closure. It must also choose what’s best for Knox Middle School.

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