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Commissioners see year of opportunity for Rowan-Salisbury Schools

SALISBURY — For many, a new year brings with it a mixed bag of emotions: Fear of the unknown. Pride in prior accomplishments. Hope for the blank slate of the months to come.

New year or not, all of the above can be felt by residents and local officials alike in the face of Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ upcoming year. And members of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners spoke to just that.

Chairman Greg Edds calls now a “critical time for our public school system.”

He noted the system’s June admittance into the state’s formative renewal program, giving it charter-like flexibility over its calendar, staffing and budget.

“It’s hard to imagine any more pressure being placed on them right now,” Edds said.

“The problem is the restart process didn’t come with an owner’s manual,” said Edds. “RSSS is writing their own. The commissioners fully support this effort and expect that we will see great improvements.”

Commissioner Mike Caskey said he hopes the school system can use the renewal program to “make some needed changes.”

“I’m not sure what all they’ve got in mind, but I do like some of the flexibility that they have with their ability to put in programs that are more technically based,” Caskey said.

Commissioner Judy Klusman used her own volunteer experience at Koontz Elementary School to illustrate her own hope: that the school system will explore investments in school psychologists.

“There are lots of social and psychological trauma issues that have affected students there,” she said. “… Symptoms of trauma can very closely mirror those of ADHD, so we need to look at if we’re medicating students we shouldn’t be. By providing psychologists, we could provide the intensive counseling that children with trauma truly need.”

But Commissioner Craig Pierce expressed concern that the school system may be facing or attempting to tackle too much at once. Just months after the district was chosen for the renewal plan, school officials released a proposed consolidation plan.

The capital restructuring could close the doors of 11 schools at a cost of more than $241 million.

“I would like to see what transpires with this restart before we start going out here and doing capital improvements,” Pierce said. “I don’t think this has been vetted out to the public as it should have been, and in the end taxpayers are the ones that are going to pay for this.”

Pierce said he’d like to see the renewal program run for a complete year and analyzed before officials approach consolidation. Growth is coming to the southern end of the county, he said, which could also affect potential plans or make them obsolete.

Whatever happens, Pierce said, the plan should be put on a ballot for voters to give their input.

“To me, we need to slow down a little bit and get some more input, look at all the variables,” he said. “I’m not opposed to looking at different ideas. In fact, I applaud the school system for taking the gigantic step of looking ahead to the future.”

Vice Chairman Jim Greene said he could support some consolidation “where it made sense.”

“Lot of schools approaching 100 years of age,” Greene said. “Being down 1,000 students across the board with our school system, it would seem to me to make sense where we can to try to consolidate schools.”

Greene said he’d love to see Rowan County’s tax base increased by enough millions to be able to fund all needed buildings and repairs, but budgetary restrictions would never make that realistic.

Edds agreed.

“Local dollars are not unlimited. We have to make sure that the money that’s currently being spent is being spent wisely and that it’s benefitting every student in the system,” said Edds. “There’s no question that we’ve got to improve.

“This should be a big wake-up call for parents, alumni boosters, churches and businesses. I am convinced that this community, working with the school board, administration and teachers, could turn this system around in a very short time. The schools can’t do it alone.”

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