RALEIGH — State Treasurer Janet Cowell says her staff is available to help Robeson County find a way to build new schools within its “debt capacity,” which she estimates at about $75 million.
In a letter to The Robesonian, Cowell said her office would work with the Department of Public Instruction and local officials to find “more flexibility and innovative solutions for additional funding.”
Although Cowell’s letter did not specifically call for a bond referendum to be held, County Manager Ricky Harris has said that the county could borrow at most about $75 million through bonds to build two or three schools. Voters would first have to approve the sale of the bonds in a referendum. Harris said that with a bond referendum, property taxes in Robeson County would likely have be increased by 15 to 20 cents.
Harris has said if three schools were built, one would be in St. Pauls, where growth is strong, and another in Lumberton, the county seat. He hinted at Maxton being the site of a third.
County officials had been considering a lease-purchase agreement proposed by sfL+a Architects that would call for 30 schools to be closed and 14 to be built. The Office of the State Treasurer voiced concerns that the $1.4 billion plan, which relies on using savings from the shuttered schools to pay for the new ones, would burden Robeson County with debt, and Cowell said she would work on an alternative.
In the letter, which was in response to queries from The Robesonian for her promised plan, Cowell said her office plans on calling “key stakeholders to the table to discuss a path forward” and that she intends to bring up the issue of funding for new schools in poor counties at an upcoming State Board of Education meeting.
“School infrastructure needs, especially in low-wealth counties, is a statewide issue that the General Assembly must address,” she wrote. “… There are no easy or immediate solutions — and additional local revenue increases have to be on the table.”
The State Board of Education’s next meeting is Aug. 3 and 4.
The plan to consolidate Robeson County schools was put on hold after proposed legislation allowing school systems to enter into operating leases failed to clear the General Assembly before it adjourned last week.
Originally, Senate Bill 554 would have allowed state money from attrition and per students funding to be put toward lease payments. In her letter, Cowell said she opposed that version because it was “fiscally irresponsible.”
A heavily-revised version of Senate Bill 554 that removed state money as an option for lease payments passed 49 to 0 in the Senate on June 27. That version “eliminated many of the Department’s concerns,” Cowell said.
Rep. Ken Waddell, Robeson County representative and member of the House Finance Committee, said that Rep. John R. Bradford III, a Republican from Mecklenburg County, tried on Friday, the last day of the session, to push an amendment to the bill through the Finance committee that would reinstate provisions into the bill that were opposed by the Treasury Department. But the Finance Committee chairman did not allow the amendment to be heard.
Cowell said she understands that funding for education is one of the biggest issues in North Carolina.
“The Department of State Treasurer has direct oversight over all local government finance, including debt,” said Cowell. “It’s not only the role of the department, but the responsibility to raise the warning flag when local government units are considering problematic debt.”
The plan to consolidate schools in Robeson County called for payments of $4 million to be paid for the first three years of the consolidation before savings could be incurred, an expense the Robeson County Board of Commissioners agreed to pay.
According to sfL+a CEO Robbie Ferris’ early plans, after the first three years, savings from maintenance, energy, attrition and natural gas among others would largely pay the system’s bill each year for 40 years. After the 14th year, the school system would be saving more than it owes on the building.
Ferris’ plans were reviewed by the financial officers for the county and the school system and given a thumps up.
Ferris told The Robesonian this week that he remains committed to the concept of building mulitiple schools in Robeson County to address that need. He believes the next General Assembly, which convenes in January, will likely be faced with legislation to help poor counties find a way to build schools.
Cowell, a Democrat who did not seek re-election, commended Robeson County delegates for their input. She said SB 554 forced a needed conversation.
“Whether it is while I am in office or with my successor, the challenge remains to answer the call of a crumbling infrastructure with innovation while keeping a vigilant eye on its financial implications,” she said. “Ultimately, this is about the school children of Robeson County and the state of North Carolina. State and local elected leaders must step up and be willing to invest more in public education. These issues demand an honest, comprehensive discussion with the needs of our students coming first.”