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Editorial: K-8 should only be start of tough votes

Laurel to the Rowan-Salisbury School Board for voting Monday night to negotiate a design contract for a K-8 school that combines Knox Middle and Overton Elementary schools.

The board moved closer to shutting under-capacity schools and, in Knox’s case, one sorely in need of some tender loving care as well as building a facility of which Salisbury and Rowan County can both be proud. The decision will be popular with people in Salisbury, but it’s also difficult because construction of a combined K-8 school will consume most of the $75 million commissioners promised this fiscal year and next.

But tougher decisions await.

For years now, the school board has raised the specter of school closures while simultaneously failing to take action. The board created a detailed plan that prioritized school closures and consolidation in late 2018 and held public hearings across the county related to the plan. But it chose not to move forward with the plan. Instead, time after time, the board created angst among students, parents and teachers only to back off.

This time could be different, as the board also appears to have voted Monday to move forward with the 2018 plan.

In fact, this time must be different. By operating decades-old schools with declining student populations, school board members are failing in one of the most essential parts of their job — being good stewards of taxpayer dollars. It’s the height of fiscal irresponsibility to operate decades-old schools in need of significant repairs and with declining, sometimes rapidly, student populations without taking action. Fixing air conditioning and heating systems is not enough.

The best option is what happened in western Rowan and what looks likely in Salisbury — combine two or more old schools and build a new one. And in historically underserved or impoverished communities, it should be the only solution.

Because tax increases are not popular, though, there will be finite resources and many cases where a new school isn’t possible. Board members in the future will need to close schools and redistrict students to another dated facility. That will prompt vocal opposition from parents and community members.

Another result: candidates will file for office and promise to never shutter a school, champion the cause of community schools and possibly oust incumbents in doing so. But those arguments ignore the fact that the teacher, classroom environment and student’s home life, not the location of their school, are usually more important factors in their success. A dilapidated building, however, can certainly have a significant impact on a student’s ability to learn.

The school board made a good decision by negotiating a design contract for a K-8 facility, but there are more votes to take. On a daily basis, Rowan-Salisbury Schools staff are making tough decisions as part of renewal. It’s only fair that the general public expects board members to make tough decisions, too.

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