The roller-coaster ride of Senate Bill 554 paused on a high last week with two Senates committees — Education and Finance — giving a revised version a pass, which will land it on the Senate floor this week. A thumbs up would move it to the House, so soon enough we might find out where local legislators who have been conspicuously silent on the bill — disappointingly so, in our mind — stand on it.
But it should be remembered that SB554 is not specific to Robeson County, although the school consolidation plan that has been presented locally is the reason the legislation almost died last week. Simply put, there are those in Raleigh, especially the Treasurer’s Office, who don’t believe poor, pitiful Robeson County has the wherewithal to pull off such a grand plan that will give us schools that could be the envy of all of North Carolina.
Although disappointing at the time, the decision by the Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County last month to put on pause discussion of school consolidation until SB554’s fate was known has served a useful purpose. It allowed in the interim a look at what else might be considered locally.
So here’s our accounting:
— The current plan introduced by Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects, or a mildly modified version. There were significant revisions to the bill, the most critical being the removal of state money for lease-purchase agreements and its replacement with lottery proceeds. Ferris was doing the math this weekend, but the existing SB554 might not accommodate what we call the Big Bang approach, the simultaneous construction of 14 schools, including a technical school, and the closing of 30 schools.
— A local bonds referendum, which would probably be no more than $75 million because that is all the state is likely to allow. Voters would have to approve the sale of the bonds, which would raise money for the construction of two schools, maybe three. Those schools would most likely be located in (1) St. Pauls, where the county is experiencing the most growth, and (2) Lumberton, the population center. The third – if enough money remained – is anybody’s guess. This would come with a tax increase of 15 to 20 cents, which is why it would never pass. This newspaper would work hard to defeat it, knowing that tax rate would be an economic death knell for the entire county.
— Stick with the 42 schools we have, which are in progressing states of disrepair and are costly to maintain, cool and heat. While this appears to be a do-nothing approach, it actually requires action. Because the school system has schools that are stuffed with children and others with empty seats, the school board would need to redraw district lines and abandon the current policy of allowing children to go to whichever school their parents prefer. That moan you hear would be an angry roar when parents found out their children’s bus ride just got longer.
— State Treasurer Janet Cowell’s plan, if one ever materializes. Cowell, while warning that Robeson couldn’t afford SB554 and the evils of a for-profit firm offering us a stairway to heaven, promised her own plan, but never delivered. In fairness to Cowell, elements that she insisted upon were included in the existing SB554.
— Another plan from Ferris’ firm, which we believe right now is the most likely scenario. The loss of state money makes trickier the financing aspect, and it is likely that a Plan B will emerge, perhaps a Little Big Bang, which won’t include a tech school. That will be a significant loss for this county, and it will then become our duty to find a way to make it happen. Understand that graduates of these schools easily find jobs.
— Someone else’s plan. We’re still waiting.
The legislation still must get approval from the General Assembly and Gov. Pat McCrory’s signature, and those things would be more assured if our local legislators would voice support. But as we said, SB554 is legislation that has support in other counties whose school infrastructure needs are more modest than ours but urgent as well.
Soon enough this ball will return to the court of our Board of Education, which should be preparing to act. But right now it’s unclear if that would be the current board or the one that takes office on July 19. We wouldn’t bet a dime on the current board getting it right, or a nickel on the one poised to be sworn in.
So now is the time for a chorus of voices from those who believe tomorrow’s children deserve better than yesterday’s. Sadly, the only thing some of our school board members fear more than shiny new schools with children who are black, white and red is the prospect of losing re-election.
It’s time for those who have been silent to speak up.