LUMBERTON — With Senate Bill 554 getting off its deathbed, the legislation is a couple of steps away from forcing a decision by the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County on whether or not to consolidate local schools.
But with the timing of the legislation’s potential approval uncertain, so is when the local school board might take action — and whether it will be the board as now composed or one that is sworn in July 19.
In the meantime, the architect of the consolidation plan has returned to the drawing board to deal with legislation that, following extensive revision last week, no longer allows for state money to be used for the proposed lease-purchase agreement. The plan had been to use about $19 million a year from savings generated from closing the schools — energy, maintenance and less staff through attrition — to pay the lion’s share of the mortgage. But some of that money was state money and has been lost, replaced by lottery proceeds.
“It’s real money,” said Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects, the firm proposing the consolidation, of the financial gap. “It’s a couple million dollars … . That’s something but it’s certainly not a deal-breaker.”
The heavily-revised version of the bill cleared the Senate’s Finance and Education committees on Friday. The newest version of the bill eliminates state money acquired from attrition and funding based on the average daily membership — or student population — of the school system as ways of paying the lease-purchase agreement.
Erica Setzer, financial officer for the Public Schools of Robeson County, has said state money that would be made available in the original bill was needed to pay for the $1.4 billion plan to build 14 new schools and close 30 considered in various states of disrepair.
“I think that the lawmakers decided if they pulled the [average daily membership] money that they were comfortable with the bill. I think that made the difference,” Ferris said.
Ferris said he and his team are still crunching numbers to find a way the project can proceed without the state money that was originally factored in.
Ferris presented his plan to build new schools to Robeson County school board members and the county Board of Commissioners in April.
The Board of Commissioners has already signed a pre-development agreement that would allow sfL+a to conduct a demographic survey and begin looking at possible sites for the new schools. The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County voted in May to halt further discussion on a school consolidation plan until the outcome of Senate Bill 554 was decided.
“I think what it means is that there is still some hope we can have further discussion about trying to build schools in Robeson County,” school board Chairman Mike Smith said of the bill’s quick surge.
The Robesonian, while polling school board members individually, found members to be split on the plan. Three members leave the board next month, Bosco Locklear, Joanne Lowry and Gary Strickland. They will be replaced by Brian Freeman, Charles Bullard and Craig Lowry.
Strickland was an advocate of consolidation, but it’s unclear where Locklear and Lowry stand as neither returned this newspaper’s phone calls. The Robesonian has not asked those who will be joining the board for an opinion.
Smith said Friday he is unsure if the current board would meet to vote on the agreement or if that duty would fall on the new board, noting the upcoming Fourth of July holiday.
The legislation still must receive approval from the full Senate and the House. Legislators are expected to adjourn their current short session soon, once a budget is approved, and will reconvene in January.