No action on tech school plan

By Bob Shiles

September 17, 2013

LUMBERTON — The Robeson County commissioners on Monday took no action on a proposal to construct a technology high school. Instead, they told school officials to bring them more information on the project, especially where the money, as much as $44 million, would from.

Johnny Hunt, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, asked the board on Monday to support the schools in paying the cost of building the school that school officials contend would prepare students for good paying jobs immediately after they graduate.

“We don’t have the money,” Hunt, a former chairman of the county Board of Commissioners, told the commissioners.

The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County last week heard the proposal for a Career and Technical Education Center from Robert Farris, of SFL+A Architects of Charlotte. The school would be constructed on property the school board owns at COMtech just outside of Pembroke.

According to the proposal, 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. A second floor would include a media center, another common area and six general use classrooms. The labs would include equipment for such things as construction technology, firefighting, welding, automotive repair and other classes that are vital to the school’s goal of “project-based learning” and “technology-based instruction. “

Hunt and Ferris both told the commissioners on Monday that the school would provide students with training they can’t currently receive.

“We don’t have the space or equipment to provide this kind of training at our career Development Center,” Hunt said.

Commissioner Raymond Cummings supported a suggestion by Ferris that the commissioners hire a financial consultant and attorney to determine if the construction of a technology high school is something the county can afford. Ferris said the study could be done for about $30,000.

Cummings made a motion to have the study conducted, but the idea died in a 4 to 4 vote.

“It seems we do a lot of studies,” Commissioner Jerry Stephens said.

Ferris said counties across the state are going to have to build new centrally located technology high schools or find ways to fund technology programs at existing schools in order to meet the requirements of Gov. Pat McCrory’s education reform requiring that every high school student must graduate either ready for a job or college.

“You do not now have a way to certify that students have the technology training they need to meet this requirement,” Ferris told the board.

Huntsaid that the facility would ia staff development area that the school district does not have.

“We do a lot of staff development, and having the center would save us between $40,000 and $50,000 a year in having to rent space,” he said.

Gary Strickland, finance chairman for the school board, said the new school would prepare students for jobs needed by local industries, and would make it more likely they would locate here.

Ferris’ company has completed several similar projects in other counties,, including a public school in Hoke County.

“These projects are successful and draw in students,” he said. “… It’s not a cost to the county. It’s a gain.”

Although appearing to approve of the concept of the technology high school, commissioners expressed concerns about how the project would be funded. They noted that they have to build a new county jail, and an additional capital project such as a school could overburden local taxpayers, they said.

Commissioner Tom Taylor said he thinks the state should have to provide funding for both the jail and the school since both projects are “unfunded mandates.”

“If the state is going to mandate these things, let them help pay for it,” he said.

Hunt said after the meeting that he is “confident”the commissioners will review and act on the proposal after school officials are able to provide more information on the project.

In other business, the commissioners on Monday:

— Approved an application from SEATS to the state Department of Transportation for $299,108 in Rural Operating Assistance Program funds.

— Approved Robeson Community College’s budget for the fiscal year 2013-14. The college’s total budget for the year is $41,251,287, including about $2.43 million in county money.

— Approved 75 Community Development Funds distributions totaling more than $21,000 and ranging from $50 to $1,500.