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Rowan-Salisbury School Board gets pushback from Faith Elementary community

The Rowan-Salisbury School Board meeting last week was awash in red as over 100 members of the Faith Elementary School community wore thematic T-shirts to “Save our School.”

The board has been considering school consolidation since December. Current district funds do not adequately support the 35 schools in the district, and many schools’ enrollment is below capacity. Board Chair Josh Wagner presented a proposal for consolidation of schools last week, and closure of Faith Elementary was prominent in the plan. 

Wagner said as a result of many parent conversations, he had studied the data and realized the following data points: 

  • The school system has 2,500 empty seats. With average elementary size at 443 students, this is the equivalent to five and a half surplus schools.
  • The system has 11 elementary schools older than 50 years. Among those schools, Faith Elementary has, by far, the highest energy per square foot cost — as well as the highest price per student energy cost. The system has nine elementary schools older than 75 years. It has six schools older than 90 years old.
  • The distance between Koontz and Shive elementary schools is 8.1 miles. Within that circle, the district has five elementary schools (Koontz, Faith, Granite Quarry, Rockwell, and Shive). Those schools combined have a total of 709 empty seats. 
  • If the board were to vote to remove Faith from the equation, there would still be about 269 empty seats in the remaining four schools.

“I met with the Faith community last Friday,” Wagner said. “They say they would be open to a new building in their part of the county, if it contained all their students. So I am making this recommendation for the board to consider.”

His proposal, consisting of three phases carrying into 2024, suggested that the board:

Phase One:

  • Redistrict about 244 students from Koontz Elementary to surrounding schools at the end of this year. This leaves 207 Koontz students remaining.
  • Close Faith Elementary at the end of this school year (Faith was built in 1929). Move all existing Faith students to Koontz. This leaves Koontz at about 90 percent of capacity. There would be no change to middle or high school assignments. 
  • Explore closing Enochville Elementary at the end of this school year. This school is the smallest in the system and currently bears $2.6 million in capital needs. It has multiple exterior doors and has been identified as a security risk.
  • Allocate about $500,000 to renovate Koontz, including paint, art, and furniture. The name of the school, however, would not be changed.
  • Work as a board with the town to preserve any portions of the existing Faith Elementary building that the community can maintain and financially support.

Phase Two:

  • Allocate $20 million to renovate Knox Middle School in its current location. Planned remodel would take place during 2020-21. Require all students move offsite for duration of construction. (Prior plans had been considered to build a new building altogether. Knox was built in 1958.)
  • Allocate $20 million to renovate and remodel North Rowan High School. Allow students to continue to attend their community school. Locate the CTE (Career Technical Education) at North. Remodel would take place during 2020-21 school year. Require all students offsite for duration of construction. 
  • Allocate remaining $19.5 million for existing capital needs across the county.

Phase Three:

  • Work with elected officials and community members to identify the required size, location, design, and funding source for a new East Rowan Elementary School and South Rowan Elementary School, to begin construction during 2023-24.
  • Plan a system-wide, tiered redistricting that would align with the construction of the new East and South schools. If construction is not practical in that time frame, implement redistricting no later than 2023-24.

Wagner’s proposal was not well-received by the red-clad audience. He struggled at times to speak over boos and yelling. Placards waved in the air as he spoke.

Wagner asked the crowd not to go home and say the board closed their school. At a minimum, he said, it’s a one-and-a-half to two month process, including a public hearing before the board could take a vote.

The three phases total $60 million, a sum promised by county commissioners to the school board. Current debt at $60 million is soon to retire, and this sum will be available to borrow. Such a loan must be approved by the Local Government Commission, Wagner later confirmed.

Board discussion ensued. Board member Susan Cox is the designated representative for the southeast Rowan County area, including Faith. She spoke with emotion to the angry crowd.

“I have been accused of not having a heart. I look you in the face and tell you my heart is breaking for you. Having said that, I apologize for the past county commissions and past school board members who have not made the tough decisions in the past,” she said. “Many of you have said that Carson and Koontz should not have been built. I had nothing to do with that. But now I’m in the position to make decisions. You don’t believe our information. You’ve said our board, and me in particular, don’t care. You have the luxury to ignore facts and figures. I don’t have that luxury. My responsibility is to all the county — all the students, parents, everyone.”

Cox’s statement was met with laughing and jeers from the crowd. Wagner tried to establish order but never used his gavel.

The board passed a measure to give direction to staff to gather all necessary data to support a public hearing for closure of Faith and Enochville Elementary schools. The count was six to one, with board member Travis Allen dissenting.

School Superintendent Lynn Moody wore red to the meeting. When asked if she wore red in support of the Faith community, she replied, “No comment.”

Later, Faith supporter Stephanie Herge stated, “I think there are still a lot of unanswered questions. I surely hope all staff can go with our kids. Our school has a reputation for high growth. Koontz does not have our good reputation for growth.”

Maggie Blackwell/EducationNC

Supporter Rebecca Byrd said, “They do not understand Faith is a small town. It’s an ecosystem. They bus in track teams to run through our town, it’s so safe. At Halloween, the police block off the streets. Kids come in to Faith because it’s a safe environment. We are built on trust, family, safety. Crime rates are low. We are a unit. We may be small, but as a unit, we are strong.”

The Faith supporters are meeting Sunday, March 17 at 3 p.m. to continue to plan how to save their school. 

No representatives for Enochville, Koontz, or Knox made themselves known at the meeting.

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.