Henderson faculty speak out against alternative school’s closure

Published 6:00 pm Tuesday, November 17, 2020

By Carl Blankenship

SALISBURY — Despite serving fewer than 50 students, Henderson Independent School’s proposed closure public hearing featured more speakers than recent hearings on Faith and Enochville elementary schools.

Most of the speakers were Henderson faculty who expressed their concerns about the future of the program. 

Before the comment period began, Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education Chair Kevin Jones noted the district has no intention of discontinuing its alternative program. Instead, it wants to close the Henderson facility, which has about $2.7 million in capital needs, and come up with an alternate plan for the program. What that would look like is uncertain.

Teacher John Pfannes was the first to speak and outlined statistics at the school showing it is increasingly effective at moving students through the program.

Robert Mead, another teacher, said he thinks closing the facility without a new location lined up would be shortsighted and advised the board to talk to the teachers at the school about what they think.

Teacher Shane Manier said students at Henderson have potential to become great leaders because of their difficult experiences and also railed against the notion of losing the facility because students see it as a place that supports them.

Larry Richardson joined his colleagues and said the school is a place for redemption and acceptance, somewhere students are shown forgiveness when they feel undeserving.

Richardson said Henderson changed his life, too. He began at the school as a substitute teacher eight years ago, went on to become a secretary and is now a full-time teacher.

Richardson also called on the board to see how staff at the school interact with parents and students.

Shania Lugo, a 2017 graduate, said she chose to go to Henderson and had a great experience at the school. Lugo said she may have missed out on graduating, college and scholarships if she hadn’t attended Henderson. 

Spencer Alderman Patricia Sledge said if the school existed when she attended school in the 1950s and ’60s, she may have been assigned there and would have benefited from the program. Sledge said the building may not be the best place for those students, but they need their own facility.

There were four written submitted comments, but two of them were unrelated to the subject matter of the public hearing.

The other two were from Spencer Alderman Sam Morgan and Spencer Mayor Jonathan Williams. Both  addressed what they said were rumors about the program being migrated to other high schools, particularly North Rowan High.

“Please don’t try to force those very same students back into regular schools,” Morgan wrote.

Williams said it is his belief that moving the student body to an existing school or reassigning them to their original schools “would be a grave mistake.”

Williams noted some students at Henderson have mental health or behavioral issues, as well as past placement in secure group homes to manage violent behavior. Williams said he believes returning the students to traditional high schools would be an “act of negligence” that could detract from current student bodies and neglect the needs of Henderson’s students.

“Most certainly, the administration, faculty and students at Henderson deserve a physical campus that is in good physical condition, something that the current facility does not provide,” Williams wrote. “However, I also recognize the steep challenges our district faces with a need for school consolidation and fiscal accountability.”

The next step for the board is to make a final decision about closing the facility, likely at its next meeting.

Board members have also questioned if it would be wise to decentralize the program or migrate it into an existing facility. School board member Jean Kennedy, in particular, has expressed concern about the possibility of creating “a school within a school.” Not creating an environment that completely removes alternative students from where they got in trouble would do them a disservice.

Henderson currently serves fewer than 50 students. The declining population at the school is a mark of success rather than failure. The district has referred fewer students to the school over the past four years, which the board and administration has attributed to a district-wide culture shift.

When students arrive at the school, they transition back to the traditional setting more quickly as well.

In other news from the meeting:

• Associate Superintendent of Operations Anthony Vann spoke to the board about ongoing closure proceedings for Faith and Enochville elementary schools at the end of the the school year.

Vann said the district held informational meetings with the faculty and staff at both schools. Recommended steps after the schools close in June will declare them surplus and giveg the county its required first-right-of-refusal on the property. Vann said Faith Academy, a charter school possibility, is interested in the Faith facility and recently talked to administration to discuss use of the facility. One option would be to lease it.

The district has instituted a transfer freeze so it can facilitate moving faculty and staff to other schools. Employees at the two schools have been asked to submit their top three transfer choices to the district so it can try to accommodate them.

• The board approved the purchase of an activity bus for $96,702. The funding for the bus, which will be able to transport three wheelchairs, was paid for out of the district’s activity bus fund that generates revenue when the district is reimbursed for use of the buses.

Transportation Director Tim Beck said the fund has about $140,000 in it.

• District Athletic Director Rick Vanhoy presented an updated list of balances for school athletic programs presented to the board. The figures included additional funds the programs do not use for recurring expenses like field maintenance and insurance.

The updated report included recent expenditures by the programs from July 1 to Oct. 7. They ranged from a single insurance payment by North Rowan for $675 to $48,892 in expenditures by Salisbury High School for field maintenance, training supplies, insurance and equipment.

• Michael Wike, of accounting firm Anderson Smith and Wike presented the district’s annual audit report. The report was positive and found the district’s finances to be in accordance with accounting standards at the end of the fiscal year in June.

• Associate Superintendent of Schools Kelly Withers showed the board data from the Innovation Project that includes an increasing shift of students away from public school districts in the state.

Rowan County has lower charter and private school attendance than the state average at 3.2% and 4.4% respectively, but a significantly larger share of homeschooled students at 12.6% of students compared to the state average of 8.3%

In the state as a whole, 79.4% of students attended public school districts in 2019-2020 compared to 80.4% in 2018-2019. In 1986 95% of students attended public school districts.

About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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