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Election 2020: Salisbury area candidates differ on consolidation

SALISBURY — Rowan-Salisbury Schools Board of Education incumbent Alisha Byrd-Clark and challenger Jonathan Barbee have different opinions on school consolidation.

Byrd-Clark, who is running for her second term, is a youth advocate who cofounded Gemstones and COMPASS Leadership Academy with her late husband Alex Clark. The nonprofits reach out to at-risk youth in the community and the couple was awarded keys to the city in 2019 for their work.

Barbee is a 2020 Catawba College business administration graduate who works as a carpenter, installing cabinets in laboratories and classrooms. Barbee serves on the Salisbury Tree Board and the Rowan County Historical Landmark Commission and is involved with other local organizations. He is vice chair of Rowan County Young Republicans.

School consolidation

Barbee opposes consolidation.

Barbee says he’s not in favor of wholesale consolidation because it would get rid of buildings that could serve other purposes. He doesn’t want to derail plans to create a consolidated K-8 facility between Knox Middle and Overton Elementary schools, but added that middle and elementary grades should be separated to prevent bullying.

“We need to look at a case-by-case basis for the rest of the county,” Barbee said.

Barbee pointed to conversations about closing Faith Elementary School as an example of the district not communicating enough with the community. Plans to close Faith Elementary have resulted in an effort to create a new charter school — Faith Academy. The people behind the academy brought their application to the state this month for an interview and had it continued.

Barbee has some ideas for what to do with buildings, including possibly leasing facilities to other organizations to host charter or trade schools as another source of revenue that would preserve the facility and possibly allow some form of teacher and administration retention.

 

Barbee said he approaches the issue as a businessman, and the difficulty for the district maintaining the facility is maintaining the buildings on a shoestring budget.

“We’re really pushing, with our budget, what we can do,” Barbee said, adding he would be interested in negotiating with outside parties once there were interested parties.

Byrd-Clark said she walked into the conversation about consolidation when she came onto the board on 2016 and that it has been a major topic of discussion for years.

After receiving information from the district about funding, upkeep and the number of empty seats in schools, about 5,000 in a district that currently serves about 18,000 students, Byrd-Clark said she believes the board needs to act. Byrd-Clark said the board needs to make the best decisions possible on whether to close or consolidate schools to save the district money and eliminate buildings it does not need.

“I don’t oppose it,” Clark said.

After she came on the board, district administration created a chart through a capital needs committee that assessed facilities based on maximum capacity, enrollment, capital needs, age of a building and utility cost to determine which schools would most merit closure.

Byrd-Clark said she opposed closures when she first ran for the board, but did not have all the information she has now. Byrd-Clark said she is now more astute on the issue.

“I think it is in the best interest of our district to start consolidating some of our schools,” Byrd-Clark said.

Students returning to school

Barbee said he would not return students to school all at once.

Barbee said he thinks classes need to be smaller and more spaced out, with a percentage of students in the building at one time, but not a specific number of days where children would not attend in-person.

Barbee noted it could be more challenging to distribute food to all students for lunch and recommending using local nonprofits to bridge that gap. 

Byrd-Clark supported returning under plan C — all virtual — and stands by that vote, though she thinks the return has gone well.

“Don’t get me wrong, I do not oppose face-to-face instruction, and I understand that a lot of students need that,” Byrd-Clark said, adding she would not try to take that from them.

Byrd-Clark said she was concerned about the total wellbeing of the district when she voted against returning students to classrooms.

She said the handful of COVID-19 infections in staff and students are too many. Still, she’s heard from those in schools that things have gone well and that students and staff are happy to be back in the building.

Competency-based education

Barbee does not oppose competency-based education.

“Diplomatically I would like to say that it is somewhere in the right direction, but we can include some of the old,” Barbee said.

He recalled sitting at a work session meeting when district leaders explained the concept to board members and attendees. 

Barbee said he likes how the concept tailors learning to individual students and would like more research on how it works.

Byrd-Clark is in favor of competency-based education.

Byrd-Clark said competency-based education gives students the opportunity to learn content and mastery at their own pace.

“They’re not pressured into moving forward even though they don’t understand,” Byrd-Clark said. “That assures us that a child actually gets what they’ve been taught, and I feel that’s more important than anything. I would hate to just pass a child along just to keep up with all the other children. I’d rather make sure they grasp the concept of what they’ve been taught and they understand totally and fully.”

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