Senate unanimously passes SB 554

By Donnie Douglas - [email protected] - Sarah Willets - [email protected]

Jane Smith

RALEIGH — The Senate on Monday afternoon gave unanimous approval to a piece of legislation that could lead the way for school consolidation in Robeson County — if that is the wish of the local school board.

A heavily revised version of Senate Bill 554 was quickly passed by the Senate and will next head to the House.

The Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County last month voted to end any talk of a plan to close 30 schools in favor of building 14 new ones, including a technical school, and renovating five existing schools until the legislation’s fate was known. As originally written, Senate Bill 554 would have allowed state money to be used for a lease-purchase agreement that has been proposed by the Raleigh firm, sfL+a Architects.

The CEO of the firm, Robbie Ferris, has presented a plan for the construction of the new schools that uses savings generated by closing the 30 schools, which he says can save about $10 million a year in energy, staffing and maintenance costs. But the plan was heavily dependent on about $9 million of state money that would have been freed up through attrition associated with fewer schools, but the version of SB 554 that cleared the Senate’s Finance and Education committees last week removed the use of state money for lease-purchase agreements and replaced it with some lottery money.

“This bill will allow local school systems to enter into operating leases using local dollars,” Sen. Wesley Meredith, the bill’s sponsor, said on the Senate floor. “The treasurer has no objection to this bill.”

The Senate’s action Monday followed a campaign against SB 554 by the state Treasurer’s Office, which has said it could drown poor counties such as Robeson County in debt. Ferris has argued that his plan allows money that is now going to energy and maintenance to go for brick-and-mortar schools.

“I’m happy to say that this has answered all of those issues,” Sen. Jane Smith, who represents Robeson and Columbus counties, said on the Senate floor. “Treasury is now on board and this is giving one new way for our rural counties to build schools. We just cannot afford to do it on our tax base and perhaps this will be an alternative some counties can use.”

Ferris this past weekend was busy recalculating his numbers to see if his original plan was still viable, or if it would need tweaking.

The Robeson County Board of Commissioners has already approved a $7 million pre-development agreement with Ferris’ firm that would allow it to proceed with necessary steps that would be done before any ground was broken on new schools. But the agreement also needs the school board’s approval.

If the bill clears the House, then it would need Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature to become law.

The timing of all that is unclear, but could be critical as the current school board is intact only until July 19, when three new members will be sworn in.

Robeson County is among several counties looking at SB 554 as a way to build new schools, and they include Columbus and Jones counties.

Robeson County Manager Ricky Harris has said a 5- to 6- cent tax increase would probably be needed to pay the mortgage on the $1.4 billion lease-purchase agreement, at least in the short term.

Harris says the only other way to build new schools would be through the sale of bonds that must be approved by Robeson County voters. He said he doesn’t believe the state would allow for more than $75 million of bonds, enough to build two or three schools.

Harris said the first school would end up in St. Pauls, where growth is rapid, and the second in Lumberton, which is the county’s population center. Maxton is sometimes mentioned as the site of a third school if the money exists to build it.

Jane Smith Smith

By Donnie Douglas

[email protected]

Sarah Willets

[email protected]

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