Public input and a field trip to Elise Middle School in Robbins apparently convinced half the members of the Moore County Board of Education that closing the school and enlarging Robbins Elementary to serve grades K-8 did not have a place in Moore County Schools' Master Facilities Plan.
On a four-to-four tie vote, a motion by Board Member Laura Lang to merge the two schools failed, with Bruce Cunningham, Ed Dennison, Dale Frye, and Charles Lambert voting to keep Elise open.
"One of the things I keep coming back to," Cunningham said, "is that two of our Growing to Greatness pathways are are culture and community."
Remarking that he had recently read a book called "Elise High School in Upper Moore County," which traces the history of the school since its founding in 1904, Cunningham said, "These kids are part of history and they are part of the culture and the heritage of that school."
"That school is downtown," Cunningham added. "What are the prospects of the Town of Robbins taking it over? They can't afford it. It is not going to happen. I don't think there is going to be an alternative use. I think we will end up with a blight on downtown Robbins if we abandon that facility."
Both Elise and Robbins Elementary are "working well," Cunningham said, "students studying, teachers teaching well, things were clean . . . If it isn't broken, why fix it?"
He also noted that, unlike Highfalls and Westmoore, both K-8 schools serving roughly 300 students, A K-8 Robbins Elementary would have 677 students "in a building that wasn't designed to do that and that has already been modified once."
"You dance with the one that carries you to the dance," Dale Frye said, noting that the voters in North Moore had consistently supported his election to the School Board. "In talking with people in that part of the County, who have faithfully voted for me, I have found no one in favor of closing Elise. I will not turn my back on the people of Robbins tonight, and I will support keeping it open."
"That community has a lot of passion, and they have taken some hits," Ed Dennison said. "I'm not sure they can take more."
"I have a concern about the community, he added. "I want them to know that we listened."
Both Dennison and Cunningham pointed out that the consolidation of Elise and Robbins Elementary was expected to cost $7 million to $9 million, while improvements needed at Elise are expected to cost only $2 million, with half of that for traffic and parking improvements that may be optional.
Charles Lambert noted that moving Elise students to Robbins Elementary — which lies outside the town limits — would mean MCS would have to pay for a police officer to cover that campus, since Robbins Town Police would be unable to do that.
Safety, efficiency key arguments for closing Elise
On the other side of the question, Lang, who made the motion to merge the schools, said "We have to remove our heart from the situation, and go with what is in the best interest of safety for children and most efficient."
"I am not any happier about taking a beloved institution out of a part of our county than anyone else," she said, adding that Elise has problems, including an open campus that is hard to secure and the fact that it is not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act [ADA].
Lang noted that the merger of Elise and Robbins was listed as the very last priority in the Master Facilities Plan, and thus several years away from implementation.
"That opens up the opportunity for us to see how we can make better use of that facility," Lang said, "and we have seven years to have discussions with Robbins."
"I would not want to be responsible for not addressing this now," Enola Lineberger said. It would be a long time before it was addressed again . . . In my heart of hearts I feel it is the right thing to do. We will have some school closures that would come before that."
The Robbins Elementary School has a chance to be the heart of that community," she added.
Noting that it was "the most difficult decision since I have been on the Board," Ben Cameron said, "I think student achievement might be even better because they get new classrooms." Cameron also expressed concerns about the safety of the open Elise campus.
Chair Kathy Farren expressed concerns about campus security at Elise, as well as specific areas of the school that are in need of repairs.
"The music classroom scares me to death where that thing is," she said. "I don't know how we'd legally hold a class in that room . . . . The cafeteria is not in good shape."
Farren also noted that she had heard from relatively few citizens opposed to closing Elise.
"When we closed Academy Heights, my phone and my email were lit up," Farren said. "I have not had one person call me about Elise. She noted that only three people had spoke against the closing at a School Board meeting.
Remainder of plan passes easily
The remainder of the Master Facilities Plan was approved unanimously, and follows closely the recommendations of the 21st Century Facilities Task Force that the Board convened to review MCS needs.
The approved Master Plan gives top priority to increasing the capacity of Pinecrest and Union Pines High Schools, building a new concept high school, and renovating and adding a Wellness Center at North Moore High School.
Next in line is a new K-5 elementary school in Area III (the Pinecrest district) and major renovations and building replacement at Pinehurst Elementary.
All of those tasks are envisioned in the first three years of plan implementation, and are expected to cost between $59.9 million and $73.0 million.
Union Pines High School is currently serving 1277 students with classroom space designed for 990. Pinecrest has a capacity of 1606 and a current enrollment of 2152. North Moore has athletic teams practicing in every available space — and starting practice at 5:00 am because of space constraints.
Years 3-5 include two new Area III three elementary schools with a 650 student capacity and a new Area III middle school with a 450 student capacity but built with a core that could accommodate 850 students. The cost is estimated at $44 million to $50 million.
Years 5-7 involve expanding West Pine Elementary to serve 650 students, at a cost of $1 million to $1.5 million.
The goal estimated cost of the plan is $104.9 million to $124.5 million.
Too much, too soon?
Lang expressed some concern that the Year 1-3 plan is too aggressive, both in terms of accomplishing all the construction in that timeframe, and in terms of front-loading the sale of voter-approved school bonds, possibly driving up property taxes.
Superintendent Aaron Spence said the Board, in facilities work sessions, had expressed a desire to deal with over-capacity schools first, and that problem is worse at the high school level.
"Whenever you adopt anything with the word "plan" in it, it is a plan," Spence said. "They are all time bound, but rarely do you do everything in the plan. You make adjustments as you go along. These are the things that we want to see happen. If the financing isn't there, then it is a plan that can be modified."
Lang said she was under the impression that the Board would host public meetings before setting priorities. Spence said that was the purpose of the public meetings hosted by the 21s Century Facilities Task Force.
However, he added, there will be public meetings about the design and placement of schools, as well as any changes in attendance districts.
"There will be a great deal of public input," Spence said. "But, in order to design that input, we need to give the staff priorities."
"We have narrowed down the feedback we received in community meetings to get to this plan."