Hunt to make tech-school plea

Bob Shiles Kelly Mayo Staff writers

September 15, 2013

LUMBERTON — Schools Superintendent Johnny Hunt will go before the Robeson County Board of Commissioners on Monday to try to convince members of the need for a technology high school in the county, and ask that the county financially support construction of the facility.

Hunt, who served as a county commissioner for 18 years before becoming schools superintendent in 2006, knows it will be a tough sale with all of the needs facing the county, including construction of a new county jail that could cost more than $40 million. The meeting begins at 6 p.m. in the county administration building on North Elm Street.

“It may not be the best timing, but it’s worth a try,” Hunt said. “In trying to keep our kids in school we have to think outside the box. I think a technology school would help our county and school system prepare our students for good jobs after they graduate … This is all about helping to prepare our students for the future.”

Hunt will be accompanied by Robert Ferris, a representative of Charlotte-based SFL+A Architects, the architectural firm that has created the floor plans for the proposed school, and Loistine DeFreece, chairwoman of the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education.

During a meeting last week of the school board, members approved a motion that Hunt ask the commissioners to judge the feasibility of building the school based on the floor plans prepared by SFL+A. The motion was opposed by two board members, Dwayne Smith and Steve Martin, both of whom said the money could better be used toward addressing needs at the county’s other schools. Estimates are construction could cost as much as $44 million.

“We have a lot of needs in our system, but we are trying to provide our students all possible opportunities to get good jobs,” he said. “This is a way to prepare students for more technical careers and jobs … . It’s a good way to attract businesses to the county because it provides a trained workforce.”

According to the architect’s plans, the first floor of the 123,000-square-foot building would house classrooms and labs, as well as a common area, teacher lounge, 800-seat auditorium and Career Development Center. The second floor would include a media center, another common area, and six general use classrooms. The labs are designed to include equipment for construction technology, firefighting, welding, motor sports and other classes.

Hunt said that the new school would replace the Career Center that needs to expand but can’t because it is located on property that is landlocked. The facility’s new labs would offer students technology experiences not currently available, he said.

Hunt also said the new school would provide space for staff development programs, saving the district between $40,000 and $50,000 a year that currently must be spent to rent space for such programs.

Six of the county commissioners who spoke with The Robesonian last week appeared to approve of the concept of a new, modern technology high school for the county, but all expressed concerns about where the money could be found. Commissioners Raymond Cummings and Roger Oxendine did not return calls from a reporter.

Most commissioners are taking a wait-and-see approach.

“I have to know all the facts,” said Noah Woods, the board’s chairman. “It’s hard to know what can be done until we know exactly how much we need to spend … Whatever is done will have to involve the community.”

Woods mentioned the county’s need to fund a new county jail, a project that he said the commissioners have no choice but to address immediately. County Manager Ricky Harris recently said that funding just the cost of the jail could mean as much as a nickel increase to the county’s current property tax rate of 77 cents per $100 of property value. A second funding source, Harris said, would be to seek an increase in the sales tax, a funding method that would have to win approval of the state General Assembly.

Harris said that all possible sources of funding the jail are currently being reviewed.

Commissioner Tom Taylor was firm in his position that he will not support construction of the technology school if it has to be done by increasing the county’s property tax, already one of the highest in the state. He did, however, tell The Robesonian that he would “consider supporting the project” if it is funded by sales tax.

“If there is going to be a new school it’s going to be paid for by everybody, and by that I mean a sales tax,” Taylor said. “The sales tax is the only fair tax and the only tax I will support.”

Commissioner David Edge said that it will take a good job of selling the need for a technology school for him to support the project.

“I’m not sure why we need a technology school,” Edge said. “We have technology schools (such as Robeson Community College) in the county. I need to know more.”

Edge, however, said he is not dug in.

“If the school is really needed , the funding will be found somewhere,” he said. “… When I buy something I don’t look first for where the money will come from. I look at whether the item is really needed and if it will pay for itself.”

Commissioner Hubert Sealey said “there must be a need for it” if the school board told Hunt to bring the school plan to the commissioners.

“Technology is the way of the future, so I certainly wouldn’t have a problem entertaining the idea,” he said.

Commissioner Jerry Stephens said he would support building the high school “if it’s a feasible enough plan,” while Commissioner Lance Herndon said the plan is “really preliminary” and that he will need to see what Hunt “brings to the table.”

In other business, the commissioners on Monday will:

— Hold a public hearing on an application by SEATS to the North Carolina Department of Transportation requesting Rural Operating Assistance Program funds.

— Consider renewal of the county’s contract for non-emergency services with MED 1.

— Review and consider approval of Robeson Community College’s budget for fiscal year 2013-2014.

— Consider a resolution approving the Locally Coordinated Human Services Public Transportation Plan for the counties that are included in the Lumber River Rural Transportation Planning Organization.

— Consider a resolution supporting the development of an alliance of local government and business leaders to review and promote improvements to a “South Economic Development Corridor” from Interstate 26 to Wilmington along the existing U.S. 74 corridor.

— Consider approval of discretionary funds.