We don’t know why the North Carolina Treasurer’s Office allowed itself to get sucked into a Robeson County fight over school consolidation, but it did. Nor do we know why it decided to carry the water for those who stood in the way of new schools in one of the poorest and racially diverse counties in all of the United States, but it did.
It was done in a patronizing fashion, under the guise of protecting Robeson County from digging a financial hole that would swallow taxpayers, a presumption based on the belief we don’t possess calculators.
The Treasurer’s Office revealed itself on May 24 when two representatives of that office warned the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County of what they said were flaws in the consolidation plan floated by a Raleigh firm that called for the closing of 30 schools, and construction of 14 — including a technical school — all at a savings of about $300 million over the 40-year life of the lease-purchase agreement. A problem was the Treasury officials had not seen the plan, and they were embarrassingly uninformed of its details, which became apparent the more they spoke about it.
The Treasury Office then put in its cross-hairs Senate Bill 554, which was key to the consolidation plan, and the legislation was neutered with the removal of the use of state money to pay the lease-purchase agreement. Treasury officials told two Senate committees their concerns were allayed, and the full Senate on Monday approved what remained of Senate Bill 554 in a 49-0 vote that underscored its vanilla flavor.
It should be noted that the bill, in removing state money, did nothing more than allow local counties to use their own money to build schools through a lease-purchase agreement.
Robbie Ferris, the CEO of the Raleigh firm, sfL+a Architects, unintentionally poked Treasury when he answered our questions by saying he believed he could still fashion a “workable” plan, albeit more modest, to take Robeson County children out of crappy schools and deposit them in nice ones.
Treasury suddenly discovered new concerns and dispatched representative Edgar Starnes, a far-right Republican who spent 20 years in the state House, including a term as minority leader, to work the halls of the General Assembly to defeat Senate Bill 554 so that Ferris and his firm could not shove new schools through any loophole. There is plenty of evidence pointing to Treasury’s motivation being to squash the local consolidation plan, but the most obvious was an amended version of Senate Bill 554 that limited any lease-purchase pact to 30 years, an arbitrary number that turned on its head Ferris’ plan that depended on 40 years.
Today none of that matters as even the amended plan didn’t pass the House on Friday night and legislators fled Raleigh.
We tried to talk to Starnes but he hung up on a reporter, after which we were told he was not authorized to speak to the media. We assume Treasurer Janet Cowell is, but multiple attempts by this newspaper for a phone interview have gone nowhere.
Cowell promised a plan a few weeks ago, but later said she was satisfied with the Senate version of 554 that Starnes was later dispatched to kill and did. So we believe she owes this county her schools plan — and we will ask for it on Tuesday. Given the deafening silence by Cowell, we expect no more than a terse statement from Treasury that reveals nothing but its obstructionism.
So the Treasurer’s Office and those locally who led this racially-charged fight against new schools have something else to celebrate this holiday weekend, their victory — and our belief that Robeson County children who enter kindergarten this fall can look forward to graduating in 13 years from the same schools as now, but worse.
Unless Robeson County does as it should and sues the state.
Our county isn’t the only loser here; there are plenty of other rural school systems that were counting on this legislation to open the door to building new schools. They and Robeson County should join hands and go to court, following the same path plowed by the Leandro case.
This is a civil rights issue: Poor children of color should not be denied equal access to quality schools because of where they are born and to whom.