LUMBERTON — Getting a central office up and running and looking at options for dealing with the loss of West Lumberton Elementary School have been established by school board members as top priorities in the districts’s Hurricane Matthew recovery efforts.
But board members say they still are uncertain exactly how the two projects will be carried out and how they will be paid for.
“The question is where are we going to get the money,” said Mike Smith, chairman of the Finance Committee for the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County. “Any money we get from FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) is not going to be enough to pay for everything we need. We are going to have to go out and find other state, federal and local monies.”
The school board held a special meeting on Aug. 22 during which board members gave school administrators the OK to notify FEMA that they want to use the agency’s Alternative Procedures method for receiving funds to use toward the central office and West Lumberton Elementary projects. Under this funding mechanism the district would receive a lump sum, including mitigation money, that can be moved to another project, such as changing the central office’s future location, if they choose do so.
Hugh McIlwain, an internal auditor for the district, told the board that FEMA had to be told if the system planned to use that plan for its long-range recovery projects within one year of the date that Hurricane Matthew was declared a disaster. Hurricane Matthew swept through Robeson County on Oct. 8, 2016.
During the same August special meeting, the board voted unanimously to authorize Superintendent Shanita Wooten to solicit architectural plans for a central office. The central office that was just west of Interstate 95 and near the Lumber River was swamped by Matthew flooding.
It has to be moved to a new location.
“The action the board took has given us the direction in which it wants us to proceed,” Wooten said. “There are so many things that we want to do that we need maximum flexibility. We are doing everything we can to find money for what needs to be done.”
FEMA wants to see the district’s long-range recovery plans in writing before money is released. Some board members told The Robesonian that it is difficult to move forward with construction projects until it is known how much money FEMA will provide.
Board members point to McIlwain as the administrator they are depending on to work with FEMA and get the best funding deals possible.
“There are a lot of options out there,” said Steve Martin, a longtime board member. “…I wait to hear back from Hugh to know what’s’s happening. He’s dealing with FEMA and other agencies every day.”
McIlwain could not be reached for this story.
Although the board has exhibited unity in selecting the central office and West Lumberton Elementary projects as priorities, there are differences among board members on where any new construction should take place and whether or not any existing facilities can be renovated and used to meet the district’s needs.
“I would love to see a new central office built, but first I want the kids taken care of,” Martin said. “… I want us to have our children where they are in good surroundings.”
Board Chairman Peggy Wilkins-Chavis said many central office employees have been housed at the Native Angels building at COMtech, located near Pembroke. However, Native Angels is up for sale, and the school district’s office space lease expires at the end of June.
“We have to find something, at least a temporary location, for these employees,” Chavis said. “We have to start running as fast as we can.”
West Lumberton Elementary School was also destroyed by flooding, and its staff and students have been located at Lumberton Junior High School since Matthew.
Randy Lawson, chairman of the board’s Construction Committee, said getting government funding is a slow process.
“This could go on for some time,” he said. “My thing is not to hurry and rush it. I want to see us get the most money from the government that we can so that we can rebuild.”
Board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee said she fears money will be taken away from North Carolina to fund hurricane recovery efforts now underway in Texas, where Hurricane Harvey pounded the Texas Gulf Coast.
“I’m concerned,” she said. “I’ve heard some things.”
She believes getting a central office up and running is crucial.
“We’re paying thousands and thousands of dollars to rent office space,” she said. “A central office has to be our first priority as long as the money to support it is not being taken from our students and staff.”
Board member Craig Lowry also stressed the need for a central office to be a major priority. He would like to see the office complex built on property large enough to eventually house other school operations, such as transportation, maintenance, and Child Nutrition Services.
Board member Dwayne Smith said that no matter hat direction the board goes, the individual schools and students “have to come first.”
“It’s easier for us as adults to adjust to these kind of situations,” he said. “For our children it’s not so easy.”
Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.