LUMBERTON — Treasury Department officials and Robeson County school board members came to a consensus Tuesday that new schools are needed for the Public Schools of Robeson County, and for that to happen locally the state will have to chip in.
“It’s going to take money and the state’s got to step up to make that happen,” said Edgar Starnes, legislative liaison for Treasurer Janet Cowell. “The low-wealth counties need special attention.”
State representatives said that they aren’t going to tell Robeson County’s Board of Education how and where to borrow the money, but they would tell them how much they can afford to borrow.
Nine school board members attended, with John Campbell and Brenda Fairley-Ferebee being absent. They were joined by Sen. Jane Smith, Reps. Charles Graham and Ken Waddell, and four representatives from Treasurer’s Office. Treasury representatives attended a school board meeting in May and cautioned against a proposed $1.4 billion plan to consolidate Robeson schools that they said the county could not afford.
Only a few members of the public attended, and there was no public comment time provided. The meeting lasted about 90 minutes.
Greg Gaskins, deputy treasurer for the state, said failing school infrastructure is a problem across the state.
“My job, or part of my job, is to work with units of government to try and find problems that need to be fixed,” Gaskins said. “One of those problems that came up and was identified was school infrastructure shortfall.”
Gaskins said a Blue Ribbon Committee recently commissioned a study to evaluate which schools in North Carolina have the most pressing infrastructure needs.
According to Larry Yates, principal program evaluator for the North Carolina General Assembly, the $1 million study should be completed in March.
The Blue Ribbon Committee will try to identify revenue sources for new schools, such as beefing up what is provided by the lottery. When the lottery began in March 2006, about 40 percent the profits went to school construction needs. Today, it’s 19 percent.
“With the funds that have been cut from this county in the last 10 years, and then they cut the lottery money from 40 to 19 percent, we are just supplanting the money that was taken away,” said Craig Lowry, the school board’s new District 5 representative. “The 40 percent needs to go back, but it doesn’t need to be put back for something else to be taken away.”
Tommy Lowry, superintendent of the Public Schools of Robeson County, said that the county has lost $48 million in state funding during the past several years.
Lowry asked Gaskins to recap why state officials opposed a school consolidation plan presented to the board in April. Gaskins said the N.C. Department of Public Instruction looked at the potential savings that the proposal promised and could not agree that those savings would be available.
The plan called for 30 schools to be closed and 14 news ones to be built, using savings from maintenance, energy and 170 eliminated positions to pay most of the 40-year mortgage. Robeson County commissioners agreed to provide up to $4 million a year in the short term that would have meant a 5- or 6-cent property tax hike. The plan was floated by a private, Raleigh-based architecture firm, sfL+a, that promised to build and fully furnish the new schools.
Gaskins said the Treasurer’s Office took issue with the length of the lease and worried that interest rates would be higher through sfL+a. The plan also depended on legislation that would have allowed some state money to pay for the schools.
The legislation, Senate Bill 554, was approved in the Senate 49-0 but died in the House without a vote.
“We were told at an initial meeting that the county would have to borrow $600 million,” Gaskins said. “Given the characteristics of the finances of the county, that seemed like a lot of load for the taxpayers to cover just for schools.”
The Treasurer’s Office has said Robeson could afford about $75 million in debt, perhaps through the sale of bonds, which would have to be approved by voters. County Manager Ricky Harris has said that could mean a tax increase of up to 20 cents to build two three schools.
The eight county commissioners were invited to Tuesday’s meeting, but none attended.
Yates mentioned that a report the Public Schools of Robeson County submitted to DPI in 2015 said that the county didn’t have any needs for school construction, but that resolving some issues in the schools would cost about $131 million.
The superintendent defended the report, saying that the school system fills it out every five years and never gets any additional money to address the issues.
“If the legislators gave us that $131 million, I could tell you our schools would not be in the condition that they are in today,” he said.
School board member Dwayne Smith floated the idea of a local 1-cent sales tax to generate revenue.
“The sales tax gets everybody involved to where you’re not just beating up on the property owners all the time,” Smith said. “I think that’s something that we really need to work on and we need to be aggressive on this. You can do all the studies in the world, but that don’t put a shovel in the dirt.”
The tax increase would have to be approved by the General Assembly.
Sen. Smith said that education is a top priority for Robeson County’s legislators, but new schools can’t be built with the county’s tax base. Waddell said there hasn’t been an “appetite” in Raleigh to do what needs to be done to help build schools.
“The problem with the state is that we try to tend to your business at home too much,” Waddell said. “I can’t for the life of me understand why the bulb doesn’t go on up there because schools and infrastructures brings in jobs. You’re going to have to stay on everybody’s butt in Raleigh.”
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989 or on Twitter @news_gabbie.