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Citizens fight school closures in Rowan-Salisbury

The Rowan-Salisbury School (RSS) Board faced almost 250 citizens at their regular meeting last Monday. The crowd was so large that the administration provided an overflow room with live video of the meeting. Notices for the meeting stated that public comment would be limited to two hours. 

The issue that brought citizens was the potential closure of two community schools: Faith Elementary and Enochville Elementary. While most attendees were from the Faith community, representatives for Enochville and Koontz Elementary School were also there. Koontz is among the 10 lowest performing schools in the state and would be the destination for Faith students if their school were to close. Faith Elementary, on the other hand, is a higher-performing school. It’s one of only two elementary schools in the district with a score of B.

The district published a plan in December to close several schools because of a lack of funds to maintain them. Many of the schools were built in the first half of the 20th century and present budgetary challenges because of their age. The district has 19 elementary schools with a total of 2,500 empty seats. With an average capacity of 430 seats per school, the empty seats equate to almost six empty schools. 

Conversations in January and February suggested using Koontz Elementary for a CTE, a career and technology education school. Architects presented preliminary plans for converting the facility from an elementary school to a CTE. 

Then at the last board meeting on March 15, Board Chair Josh Wagner suddenly presented a new plan to close Faith and Enochville at the end of this school year — only two months away. Under Wagner’s plan, Enochville students would be redistributed to Landis and Millbridge schools; Faith students would be sent to Koontz.

Faith parents have not been shy in sharing their disregard for the plan. Faith Elementary School, built in 1929, has students whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents attended the school. The school is 89 percent white.

Koontz Elementary School, built in 2005, is named for educator Elizabeth Duncan Koontz, an African-American woman who served in both Lyndon Johnson’s and Richard Nixon’s administrations. Toward the end of her career she served as the assistant superintendent of education for the state of North Carolina. The school is 87 percent minority. 

RSS administrators have committed to moving teachers from Faith to Koontz, so that children will continue to have the teachers they know. HR Director Kristi Rohn introduced a survey for teachers to indicate their desired school and their years of service to the district. District Superintendent Lynn Moody stated teachers will be placed where they desire. In the rare case of too many teachers wanting limited spots, she said, those with seniority in the district will be assigned to the schools of their choice. 

Thirty people spoke during public comment. Of the 30, 22 spoke against closing Faith, three spoke against closing Enochville, and five defended the reputation of Koontz, with some asking for additional help from the district and the state. 

Many representatives from Faith accused the board of ulterior motives and questioned estimates for maintenance of the school. Speakers who verbally attacked Wagner received whoops and applause from the crowd.

After public comment, school board members shared their thoughts. 

Wagner led his remarks by reminding the audience of all the empty seats in elementary schools in the district. He referred to prior school boards, saying closures have been needed for a long time, but those boards acquiesced to the wishes of the public, creating a critical financial problem today. He challenged citizens to attend school board meetings to support their children, not only when their schools are threatened. 

Wagner was heckled and jeered during his remarks. Finally, he offered to have one gentleman removed from the meeting. Spontaneous remarks from the audience slowed after that. 

Board member Travis Allen said it’s impractical to pour millions of dollars into aged schools. The board will vote soon, he said, on spending $20 million for North Rowan High School, built in 1958. He intends to vote against the measure, because of the school’s age. He likened that situation to retaining Faith Elementary and continuing to support its physical needs. 

Board member Dean Hunter referred to the recent closure of Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools, saying the communities didn’t want that to happen, but now the students have a brand new, $31 million facility. Hunter said every student in the county deserves such a facility. 

Board member Alisha Byrd Clark spoke up about the defamation of Koontz Elementary School. “We’re hearing the children at Koontz spoken of as ‘those children,’” she said. “They are just as important, and have just the potential for greatness, as the children of Faith. When I cast my vote, it is based solely on my integrity and my commitment to all the children of the system.”

After the meeting, Faith Mayor Todd Peeler said, “I know they’re not listening — they’ve made up their minds. None of this is easy. You can’t tell me they went from a full-blown presentation with so many options in December and Wagner suddenly proposes this plan? It didn’t happen overnight. 

“We know what streets cost. We could pave the whole town of Faith with the money they’re saying they need to fix pavement at the school. It’s just not needed.”

The board voted to hold two public hearings to listen to the public regarding closure of the two schools. The first was supposed to be today to address closure of Faith Elementary, but it was canceled later in the week. The second is Monday, April 8, at South Rowan High School to address the closure of Enochville Elementary. 

Maggie Blackwell

Maggie Blackwell is a freelance writer and former City Councilwoman in Salisbury, North Carolina. She started writing on her Tom Thumb typewriter at age eight and now spends her retirement playing with her grandchildren.