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Josh Bergeron: County Commissioners see role for themselves in school closure talks

Rowan-Salisbury School Board members aren’t the only ones thinking about consolidation in 2020.

While commissioners have already promised funding, they made need to offer their leadership, too.

That conclusion was among many mentioned during a goal-setting portion of the commissioners planning retreat earlier this month.

Commissioners Vice Chairman Jim Greene told fellow commissioners they had committed “a lot of money” — $75 million to be exact — and “seeing that goes in a positive direction is something we need to talk about at some point in time.” Commissioners in this year’s budget allocated $15 million in capital funding. Next year, they’ve promised to give the school system an additional $60 million.

“Jim is right, and we can sit back and say we can let those elected folks take the hit, but this board is going to have to step up and lend some support,” said Commissioners Chairman Greg Edds. “The questions are consolidation, some closures, building new schools and there needs to be a plan that’s clear. … We don’t know how to fix all of it, but we’ve got to be part of the answer.”

The school board unveiled a public plan in late 2018, but appears to have gone off track. Tier one of the plan, projected to occur within five years, included the closure and demolition of North Rowan High School, creating a vocational high school at Koontz Elementary and a new East Rowan Elementary School to replace Faith, Rockwell and Granite Quarry Elementary schools. The school board has considered and abandoned some version of all of those while simultaneously failing to follow through. The board also settled with Rowan County commissioners years ago on a financial package that, among other things, included a Knox Middle School renovation; that also hasn’t happened.

Last week, the Rowan-Salisbury School Board asked staff to prepare a plan to build a K-8 school to replace Knox Middle and Overton Elementary and draft a proposal for redistricting. But following through with that plan would consume a majority of what commissioners have promised.

Mostly, commissioners have been hands-off or preferred to engage in behind-the-scenes conversations as the school board has wrestled with closure and consolidation. They could have a more prominent and public role in the future.

Will school board members accept that decision-making help or say, “No thanks?”

There were other goals, too.

Commissioner Judy Klusman said commissioners should invest $1 million in the area of substance abuse.

“That’s probably choking you all right now, but it affects everything up there,” Klusman said, pointing a list of items commissioners talked about during their planning retreat. “We want people to work, but if they’re addicted, they can’t. We want people to raise their children in a healthy home, but if they’re addicted, they can’t. … Addicted parents don’t get their kids to school and these kids miss months of school.”

Commissioner Craig Pierce said he wants to continue work to improve the look of the airport for those driving to the facility and planes flying in as well as moving the facility’s taxiway so that the airport’s terminal building would be on the same side as the National Guard facilities.

Pierce says he also wants to see further improvement at the Rowan County Animal Shelter, which he said was among the top three in the state for its low euthanasia rate.

Commissioner Mike Caskey has his sights set on securing enough funding for a resource officer at every school in the county, particularly in elementary schools, as well as establishing a veterans court.

Edds had a list of priorities that included continuing to participate in the Rowan Educational Collaborative — an informal meeting of community leaders, elected officials and staff at educational institutions in Rowan. The collaborative, in particular, is focused on aligning economic needs with what’s provided by local schools.

Commissioners, Edds said, also need to talk to the 10 municipalities in the county about their “gateways” — the impressions visitors get when arriving in the cities or towns.

Edds said he agreed with Pierce about needing visual improvements at the airport, likening it to a federal penitentiary.

“What does it say about us,” he asked.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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