New jail v. tech school

September 11, 2013

There will over the next few months, hopefully not years, be plenty of water-cooler talk in Robeson County about why the county commissioners are building a new jail but — we are making a prediction here — not a new techical school.

The short answer is because there is no choice but to build the jail, and the construction of a new school would push taxes up — either property or sales. We don’t see on the existing Board of Commissioners the kind of leadership that would be required to risk re-election with the construction of a new technical school regardless of the potential benefits that it might bring.

Local residents are frustrated by the decision that is most likely to come. They are already muttering: “We can build a jail so that those among us who live outside the law have a bed, air conditioning and a warm meal, but when it comes to educating our children, the money simply can’t be found for a technical school that could be transformative.”

County officials say that about 250 more inmate beds are needed, and that the current jail cannot be expanded, even though that was part of its selling point when the county was apparently duped into the current design just more than 20 years ago. Although the state decided to abandon a minimum security prison on N.C. 711, there doesn’t seem to be any movement in that direction by a committee created to explore options for the jail.

So the county commissioners will eventually hand residents of this poor county a bill that is estimated to be about $40 million, mostly because this county ranks so high in crime in this state.

Coincidentally, the expected cost of a mammoth building that would house a technology high school that would replace the Career Center is about $40 million and some change. We want to give our Board of Education an A-plus for its vision in proposing the technology school, but a 65 — sorry, that’s the lowest mark we are allowed to give — for the timing of this venture. A new jail has been headed in our direction for years, while the proposal for the technology school is tardy.

Adding to the intrigue is that schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt, who spent 18 years on the county Board of Commissioners, 12 as its chairman, will go before that board and ask for feasibility study of the technical school. There is not much doubt that Hunt once carried the biggest political stick in Robeson County, and it will be interesting to see how much of that punch he still packs.

We, too, would much rather see a technical school built than a new jail. If we did a better job in this county of educating our young people, then we wouldn’t have to build bigger jails every quarter century.