My Turn, Phil Kirk: Rowan must think big for best school solutions

Published 12:00 am Saturday, November 23, 2019

I have followed with great interest the current discussion about the future of Knox Middle School and Overton Elementary School for many reasons. Congratulations to all involved for their civility and respect which they are showing about these emotional issues.

Public education has long been an interest of mine, especially in my home county of Rowan. This particular hot-button issue is especially important to me because I began my career as a teacher at Knox 52 years ago and my uncle, Ralph Bostian, was principal at Overton for many years.

First, we should all be appreciative that the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is tackling the controversial issues, such as the high maintenance costs involved with old, inefficient buildings as well as too many empty seats throughout the system. These problems have been growing for many years.

No one wants to lose their current school. The Knox-Overton situation is comparable to other schools; however, it is also quite different and should be creatively approached.

To those who have not visited Knox ever or in recent years, please do so or take my word that it is a disaster structurally and a Band-Aid, short-range approach is simply not the answer.

Students learn better and teachers teach more effectively in a building that is comfortable and meets modern design and construction standards. Energy efficiency, safety and clean, safe air are also important, not only for health reasons but also for saving precious tax dollars.

As the school choice issues continue to grow, the traditional schools must adjust their thinking and compete for students since they no longer have a monopoly in the education market. While I strongly support the right of parents to choose what is best for their children, I remain a strong supporter of our traditional public schools.

No matter what one’s personal opinion might be, the way a school “looks” and “feels” not only is important to parents but it is a factor in teachers being willing to teach there. Closing Overton and dispersing students to four or five schools is not the way to attract or keep students in the system. In fact, it will escalate the movement toward home schooling, private schools, and public charter schools.

This is not only an education issue, but it is an economic development issue. Businesses do not want to locate or expand in an area that does not value education and does not adequately fund education.

Rowan-Salisbury is finally experiencing economic growth and now is not the time to erect barriers to that growth. Realtors will tell you that the quality of schools is one of the biggest factors in where people decide to live.

The quality of our public schools is important to our higher education institutions and to our new and existing industries as they recruit talented educators and executives for business and industry.

Kudos to the Board of Education for stepping back in order to listen to the citizens of Salisbury-Rowan. I would encourage the board to revisit its earlier decisions. Think BIG.

Think about the long-range, not the short-range. Build a new K-8 school on the vacant property between Knox and Overton. Then tear down the old buildings and possibly sell the surplus property to help pay for the new school. Build in safeguards so that the future use is compatible with the school and leave some green space.

It is likely that building a new school to replace Knox-Overton will require a bond issue and could address pressing but expensive needs in other parts of the county. I have been privileged to chair the working committees for the two largest successful statewide bond issues in history for K-12 schools, UNC system, community colleges, highways, and UNC-TV. Should the Rowan County commissioners decide to place a bond on the ballot, I will volunteer my time, if needed, to work on the campaign to pass the bonds.

On a related note, I just learned of the Rowan Education Collaborative. What a novel approach to have the leaders of education and government talking with each other on a regular, structured basis. I know all of the players involved and have great optimism about the collaborative’s future and would add that the quality, dedication and work ethic of these leaders is “head and shoulders” above that of most counties in North Carolina.

I will continue to follow the education discussions in Rowan-Salisbury with great interest and pray for the “right” solutions.

Phil Kirk is a native of Rowan County, chairman emeritus of the State Board of Education, and president and CEO emeritus of the North Carolina Chamber.