RALEIGH — Robbie Ferris says he’s putting a plan to consolidate Robeson County schools on hold until he can see the final version of Senate Bill 554, which was passed unanimously by the Senate on Monday.
Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects, the firm proposing the $1.4 billion consolidation plan, said he believes he has a “workable” plan to build schools in Robeson County in accordance with the revised bill. But because the bill has been heavily changed since its introduction, Ferris is taking a “wait-and-see” approach.
SB 554 allows school systems to enter into operating lease agreements, which is what sfL+a is proposing.
Ferris in April presented a plan that uses savings generated by closing 30 schools to build 14 new ones. Ferris estimates that about $10 million a year would be saved in energy, staffing and maintenance costs. The original plan was heavily dependent on about $9 million of state money that would have been freed up through the passage of SB 554, 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 Monday. “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 a 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. The measure is not listed on today’s House agenda.
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.
According to Harris, a tax hike of up to 20 cents might be needed if voters approved the bonds sales.