It is easy to blame the state Treasury’s Office for the defeat of Senate Bill 554, the legislation that was needed for the Big Bang approach of school consolidation, because it was that office’s spirited offense that led to the bill dying on the vine.
But local legislators must take some of the blame because three months into the conversation, we have yet to hear any of them speak emphatically in favor of the bill — or new schools, beyond saying they are “needed.” Instead they remained publicly perched comfortably on the fence, with one representative — perhaps more — working covertly behind the scenes to kill SB554.
And then there is the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County, which when presented with a plan to build 14 new schools and told by its own finance officer that consolidation was actually cheaper than standing pat, split about evenly on proceeding.
Consider that one school board member, Dwayne Smith, actually said with a reporter nearby that he would support “nothing that’s going to raise my property taxes, period.” So a school board member apparently doesn’t want to pay $100 a year on a $200,000 home to build 14 new schools? Really?
Schools cost money to build, and the idea that Robeson County is going to build them without taxpayers paying for them is folly.
So now the plan du jour is the construction of two, maybe three schools, that come with a tax increase of up to 20 cents, compared with the Big Bang approach of 14 schools that could come at a quarter the cost. Except that route dead-ends when voters say no to the sale of bonds through a referendum.
Maybe Raleigh is right when it condescendingly concludes we can’t do math in Robeson County.
The reason Raleigh killed school consolidation in Robeson County is because we made it easy for that to happen.
Our school board, incredibly, was disinterested in new schools, though any political backlash from paying that bill would have targeted our county commissioners; our legislators did not fight for the bill, and probably were more hindrance than help; and local folks who opposed consolidation had the ear of Treasury, not local folks who supported it.
And therein is the problem: We have heard from the naysayers, but we have yet to hear from the yaysayers.
If Robeson County is going to do better and provide tomorrow’s children with schools that are ergonomically designed, heated and cooled at no cost, outfitted to enhance learning, and free of asbestos and mold, then the folks who favor that are going to have to speak up.
What must happen for new schools to rise from the ground is for a grassroots campaign to do so as well. That campaign must include community leaders, town boards, educational institutions such as Robeson Community College and The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, teachers, Southeastern Health and Robeson County Health Care, business, industry, civic groups, churches — all of which stand to benefit from a progressive approach to new schools.
If they can’t raise their voices sufficiently to drown out those who are stuck in the past, then new schools will not be coming to Robeson County. Our school board and legislators in the end will follow the loudest crowd.
Nothing will happen in the short-term, but the North Carolina General Assembly will reconvene in January, when the question of how to help poor counties build new schools awaits. If in the six-month interim, those who want a better future for this county can’t come together and make their wishes known, then we are undeserving of new schools.
And deserving of the bleaker future that silence ensures.