LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education, not the county commissioners, will have to lead efforts to develop a plan to build new Robeson County schools.
That’s the opinion of at least three Robeson County commissioners after Senate Bill 554, a bill that would have helped move forward a proposed schools consolidation plan, failed to pass in the General Assembly on July 1 before legislators adjourned until January.
“I have no clue what we will do. We haven’t discussed it,” Commissioner Tom Taylor said Wednesday. “This is a school board issue.”
Passage of Senate Bill 554, which would have allowed local boards of education statewide to lease schools, was key to a schools consolidation plan proposed by sfL+a Architects. The company’s CEO, Robbie Ferris, however, has expressed optimism that his overall plan can still be done with some adjustments.
According to Ferris, his staff will be looking at other ways to finance consolidation. He originally proposed a 40-year lease that uses savings from closing 30 schools to build 14 new ones, including a technical high school. He said a revised plan likely would not call for fewer schools to be built because the “math doesn’t work with fewer schools.”
County Manager Ricky Harris was reluctant to say anything about what he thinks is next for the consolidation plan without Senate Bill 554. He said that the commissioners and the school board will have to decide what steps to take.
“I don’t know of anything the commissioners can do,” Harris told The Robesonian. “Personally, I don’t see anything happening this budget year.”
Commissioner David Edge was more pointed in his comments.
“Nothing is going to happen,” Edge said. “We have to wait and see what the Treasurer’s Office does. Unless the Senate bill is changed, nothing is going to be done. We are right back where we started.”
Edge was referring to concerns raised by Treasury officials about the version of Senate Bill 554 that supporters of the bill had hoped would be approved by the General Assembly before it adjourned.
The Robeson County Board of Commissioners Board has already signed a pre-development agreement with sfL+a Architects, but the Board of Education decided to halt discussion on the consolidation plan until the fate of the bill was determined.
County Commissioner Jerry Stephens, the board’s chairman, said that he prefers considering Senate Bill 554 to have just been “put to sleep,” not killed in the General Assembly.
“Legislators will take this up again in January,” Stephens said. “In the meantime, we need to contact Treasury officials and ask them to show us their plan. I want to see their plan and anyone else’s plan. We need to do something now.”
While Stephens agrees that the Board of Education is responsible for overseeing education of county students, he says that developing a school consolidation plan is a partnership that includes the school board, county commissioners and state legislators.
“There is no one leader in this,” Stephens said. “This has to be a partnership. Each group has its responsibility, the commissioners being responsible for finding the money.”
Stephens said that he is going to recommend a meeting be held between commissioners, school board members, and members of Robeson County’s state legislative delegation to discuss where the county wants to go with school consolidation.
“We need to put everything out on the table for discussion,” he said. “We need to come up with a plan. We need to be in accord with one another when this (Senate Bill 554) comes up again in the legislature in January.”
John Campbell, the school board’s vice chairman, said that he hopes members of the school board will step up and take the lead in addressing the need for new schools and consolidation.
“These issues are not going to go away,” Campbell said. “Maintenance costs of our schools are getting more every year as our schools age.”
Campbell said that he wants officials from the Treasury Department to come before the school board and present their financing plan for school construction. He also said he wants to hear from Ferris and his staff.
“I hope Ferris doesn’t give up on us until we don’t want to talk anymore,” Campbell said. “I for one want to explore this. If we don’t explore this, what are we going to do? If we continue to do the same things we have always done we will get the same results of deteriorating and aging buildings and escalating maintenance costs. Our students deserve better buildings and an all-around better education.”
State Treasurer Janet Cowell last week, in response to queries from The Robesonian, said Robeson County could afford about $75 million in financing. Though she was not specific, it appears she was referring to raising that money through the sale of bonds, which requires voter approval.
Harris has said that $75 million could pay for two, maybe three schools, with the first two going in St. Pauls and Lumberton. He predicted it would add 15 to 20 cents to the tax rate if that was the route taken.
Harris had said that Ferris’ plan, if legislation had allowed it, would have resulted in a tax increase of 5 or 6 cents.
Steve Martin, a member of the school board, agrees that the Board of Education now has to take the lead in developing a school construction and consolidation plan that is workable in Robeson County. He is calling for state Treasury officials to come forward and present their plan to local school officials.
“I’m all for Treasury leading the way,” Martin told The Robesonian. “They need to bring us their plan so we can move forward.”
Martin said he doesn’t think Senate Bill 544 will ever pass the General Assembly as proposed.
“It takes too much money away from the classrooms,” he said. “… One of my big concerns has always been where is the money coming from.”
Martin said that he believes there are definitely schools in the county that need to be replaced or undergo major renovations.
“But I think we can address these needs without closing 30 schools,” he said. “I think in this case we have put the cart ahead of the horse.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.