LUMBERTON — Key players in a discussion to build new schools in Robeson County will meet Tuesday but apparently without representation of a key group — the Robeson County Board of Commissioners.
The meeting is set to include the Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County’s, Robeson County legislators and representatives from the N.C. Treasurer’s Office and the Local Government Commission. According to an email from Rep. Charles Graham, Tammy Freeman, clerk to the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, confirmed Aug. 16 that county commissioners wouldn’t be attending the meeting.
“I’m not meeting with them (Treasury),” said Roger Oxendine, District 3 commissioner. “They didn’t want to meet with us before the (state legislative) session ended. Why should I meet with them now?”
School construction has been a contentious topic in Robeson County since April when sfL+a, an architecture firm based in Raleigh, presented a $1.4 billion plan to shutter 30 middle and elementary schools in favor of building 13 consolidated K-8 ones. The county’s high schools and Early College would have remain unaffected, and six middle and elementary schools would have been remodeled into K-8 schools.
Supporters touted the plan as a way to use savings generated from the closing of the schools to pay more of the 30-year lease, saying the status quo would be more expensive in the long run.
The commissioners agreed to put up the extra money needed to fund consolidation, meeting a long-standing request from school board members that the county give more of its budget to the Public Schools of Robeson County. The Board of Commissioners on May 16 signed a pre-development agreement needed to begin work on consolidation, but the Board of Education never took action on that agreement, and consolidation has stalled since the Treasurer’s Office warned that the plan could burden Robeson County with debt.
“This is between the school board and Treasury,” said District 7 Commissioner Tom Taylor. “This is not an issue the commissioners are involved in. They put the cart before the horse last time … They will call us if they need us.”
Two Robeson County delegates, Reps. Garland Pierce and Ken Goodman, said they wouldn’t be attending Tuesday’s meeting because of prior commitments, but Graham and Sen. Jane Smith will be attending. Smith said that it’s up to the county commissioners whether or not they attend, but she says they will have to become involved sometime.
The plan also hinged on some state money being put toward lease payments, but legislation that would have allowed that, Senate Bill 554, failed to pass the General Assembly before legislators convened their most recent session.
Shortly after the plan was presented by Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects in April, representatives from the Office of the State Treasurer attended a school board meeting and said the lease agreement would increase the debt in the county to an unmanageable amount. State Treasurer Janet Cowell also denounced the plan and urged legislators to oppose both the overall plan and Senate Bill 554. Cowell said the bill, which allowed money saved from eliminating jobs to go toward lease payments, took money out of the classroom and gave it to a private company.
The locations of the 13 new schools called for in the consolidation plan could not be set in stone until the Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners signed the pre-development agreement, causing concerns among some parents that their children would have to travel long distances to get to school.
Representatives from the Treasurer’s Office refused to meet with Ferris to discuss the consolidation plan and Senate Bill 554, saying they did not want to negotiate with someone who would profit from the bill’s passage.
“This is an extremely important issue for our county,” said Smith, who called for the joint meeting. “We need to build schools and we need to figure out how to pay for them. We know we can’t build them with our tax base.”
In mid-June, the Treasurer’s Office said it was working on its own plan to help school systems like Robeson County’s build new schools without taking on too much debt. Cowell didn’t produce a plan to fund new schools in Robeson County, but said that Robeson County could afford $75 million in debt.
County Manager Ricky Harris said that much money would build two or three schools, and force a tax increase of about 20 cents. The plan to build 14 new schools included a 5- to 6-cent tax hike.
The meeting begins at 6 p.m. at the Public Schools of Robeson County’s central office.
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.