RALEIGH — Two of Robeson County’s representatives in the House say they most likely will support the Senate version of a bill that would allow school systems to enter into operating leases to build new schools, and two others want more information.
After passing the Senate floor 49 to 0, the House is the next stop for the newest version of Senate Bill 554. As of this morning, the House had not scheduled to hear the bill on the floor or in any committees.
“I haven’t read the bill yet, but from what I’ve been told it’s been changed considerably from the original one and it is now better,” said Rep. Ken Goodman, a Democrat. “It had the support of 49 of the 50 senators so that should tell you something about the bill.”
The original draft of Senate Bill 554 would have allowed school systems to use state money to pay for a lease-purchase agreement. The changes followed warnings from the state Treasurer’s Office that the plan could burden Robeson County with more debt and take money away from the classroom.
Rep. Garland Pierce, also a Democrat and the senior member of Robeson County’s state legislative delegation, said that he believes the bill will pass if it reaches the House floor. He also said he has not read the new bill but is basing his decision to vote in favor of its passage based on what he has heard and read in The Robesonian.
“This bill seems to have satisfied a lot of concerns and appears to be more toward the conventional way of building schools by raising taxes and floating bonds,” Pierce said. “A lot of people didn’t want to incur the large debt that was part of the original bill. … I think this is a more appropriate way to go.”
Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects, in mid-April presented county officials with a $1.4 billion consolidation plan that calls for 30 schools to be closed and 14 new ones, including a technical high school, to be built. The county’s high schools and Early College would be unaffected, and five existing schools would eventually be renovated into K through 8thgrade schools.
Although Ferris said he is working on an alternate plan and believes the consolidation could be completed without the use of state money, Erica Setzer, financial officer for the Public Schools of Robeson County, said the money from the state, which totals $9 million, was essential in paying for the $1.4 billion consolidation plan.
The two other House representatives for Robeson County said they would need more information.
Rep. Charles Graham, who represents a large portion of Robeson County, said he is not ready to commit to supporting the bill because he has yet to see it. However, he said some of his concerns seem to have been addressed in the newest version of the bill. Rep. Ken Waddell said the need for schools are great, but he wants some questions answered by the Office of the State Treasurer before he would fully support the bill.
The House is the last stop for the bill before it can be reviewed and signed into law by Gov. Pat McCrory, but Goodman said he wasn’t sure if the bill would even be considered this session. The short session is usually over when a state budget is passed, normally around the beginning of July.
“If the bill does come up I think, from what I’ve been told, I can support it,” said Goodman. “I want Robeson County to have the school facilities it needs without risking the county’s financial condition. I think what is in the new bill is doable.”