Last updated: June 05. 2014 10:48AM - 3289 Views
By - swillets@civitasmedia.com

Sarah Willets | The Robesonian The weight room at Purnell Swett High School fills up as about 30 students file in for class. As many as 45 students may use the room at a time, forming lines of six or eight students at each weight machine.
Sarah Willets | The Robesonian The weight room at Purnell Swett High School fills up as about 30 students file in for class. As many as 45 students may use the room at a time, forming lines of six or eight students at each weight machine.
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LUMBERTON — While a report showing that Lumberton Senior High School has received 55 percent of the money doled out for high school athletic facilities since 2008 sparked concerns about unfair distribution of money, school officials say the data doesn’t reflect the full picture.

“We hear it every day over here from the teachers, we hear it from athletes, we hear it from community members. They’re upset about it and I don’t know what to tell them … Hopefully our time is coming, but when?” said Jerome Hunt, Purnell Swett High School’s athletic director.

The report, compiled by county Athletic Director Jason Suggs, showed that Lumberton has received $1,232,665.38 out of the total $2,216,465.24 spent on athletic facilities by the school system since 2008. Purnell Swett received the second highest amount, with $448,944, and Red Springs High School the least, with $92,706.41.

According to Erica Setzer, finance officer for the schools, official data before 2008 is not available. Some written records were kept by Earney Hammonds, director of maintenance, but cannot be checked against the system’s accounting software.

The report was requested after the Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education voted 8-3 to allocate $200,000 to Lumberton High School for improvements to its weight room and its contents, which had been deemed a safety hazard.

The numbers have caused some to cry foul, and others to rush out in defense.

“I was a little caught off-guard with the numbers when I saw them but then I thought about the big picture knowing where we started in 1989,” said Ronnie Chavis, who was the county’s athletic director from 1990 to 2010.

Chavis said critics should keep in mind projects that were funded before 2008, like a nearly $1 million upgrade for lighting at all six high schools.

“As far as keeping up with a tally of how much was spent, that wasn’t any concern of mine and I don’t think anyone was worried about whether more money was spent on Lumberton or whether more money was spent on Purnell,” Chavis said.

Hunt said Rams fans are voicing concerns about other schools, like Red Springs.

“Everybody right now is saying ‘When are we getting our $200,000?’” he said, referring to Lumberton’s weight room funding. Comparisons are most common between Lumberton and Purnell Swett, the district’s two 4A schools.

“There’s always going to be that bantering back and forth between Lumberton and Pembroke,” said Bruce Mullis, president of Lumberton High School’s booster club. “That is just kind of the nature of the beast.”

Some justify the Lumberton High allocation because of its size.

Lumberton is the largest school with 2,220 students, including 394 athletes playing 35 different sports. Purnell Swett has more athletes — 533 — but 1,760 students and 31 sports programs, according to Suggs’s report. According to officials at Purnell Swett and Lumberton, Lumbertonj has more multi-sport athletes requiring equipment for two or three activities.

“There might be some differences there right now, but by the same token you’ve got to face the facts that the needs are different,” Chavis said.

More students mean more wear and tear on the equipment and facilities.

“I’m not pointing a finger at any one person or whatever but we send over 300 people through our weight room every day … that’s almost as many kids as South Robeson has,” said Mackie Register, Lumberton High’s athletic director.

While a larger school may need more bleachers, parking and locker room space, spending since 2008 is not quite proportional to size.

If the total money spent was distributed evenly among the county’s 6,849 high school students, Lumberton would have received $711,961.39 and Purnell Swett $569,569.11. If the money was distributed based on each high school’s athlete population, which adds up to 1,709 for all six schools, Lumberton would have received $501,993.16 and Purnell Swett $691,267.39.

Mark Heil, head football coach at Purnell Swett, said the gap should be smaller between two schools competing in the same conference.

“When you’re in a league and you’re playing Scotland and Richmond, and you want to stay competitive with them, you’ve got to spend some money,” Heil said.

Heil said, in addition to the requests of other schools, he would like to see Purnell Swett’s immediate needs addressed, like replacing a broken 20-year-old washer/dryer set.

“I look at the things [Lumberton is] getting and we just need something as simple as that,” he said.

Officials in Lumberton have felt somewhat vilified, Register said.

“We’re proud of our weight room, we really are, and thankful … but it’s almost like we can’t be as proud of it. When Red Springs got theirs, they got an article about how awesome their weight room is, stuff like that. And we can’t even be proud of our stuff because of the witchhunt that has been going on with us basically. It felt like that at times,” he said.

The distribution of athletic facility funding may more closely mirror the makeup of the school board than the makeup of the schools themselves.

Board members Gary Strickland, Bosco Locklear and Jo Ann Chavis Lowery, who voted against giving Lumberton the $200,000 over concerns that money was not being distributed evenly, live in Pembroke. Six board members reside in Lumberton, one in Maxton and one in Red Springs.

Register said school board members’ ties to the Lumberton could have some bearing on funding.

“I mean obviously it probably does have some influence, but I think if another school needs something … they’re going to help out other schools,” he said.

Strickland said his vote against Lumberton’s funding was intended to prompt more discussion.

“My big thing at the end of the day is the process that was taken,” he said. “We all care about kids just like myself but I think we should have stepped back a little bit, taken a look and then stepped forward.”

Strickland said the $200,000 could have been divided to give multiple schools immediate weight room improvements.

School board member Mike Smith, who represents St. Pauls and Red Springs, said he sees no disparity in the numbers.

“It just so happens Lumberton may have needed some stuff at that particular time. I think we’re being as fair as we can be with the resources we have available at different times,” Smith said.. “… Anytime someone gets a little something, everyone else is going to want a little something.”

Lumberton High may have also benefitted from an active booster club.

“I think it’s partially because we have asked for it, partially because we have identified our needs and partially because we have such a large school …,” Mullis said. “… We all know you can spend something any way that you would like but at the same time if you’re not active, don’t blame those that are active.”

Heil said he isn’t.

“If they can get it, more power to them … they have a lot of people involved and have some good things going,” he said.

George Coltharp, Red Springs’ football coach, saw the disparities first-hand during his time as athletic director at Red Springs High, but said he was never concerned with what other schools got.

While Lumberton received money every academic year highlighted by the report, Red Springs did not receive any from 2008 until its weight room was overhauled during the 2013-2014 school year, according to the report.

“Numbers don’t lie, you could go back 10 years and we’d still be way down the list. You could probably go back 20 years and we’d be down the list, what I’m saying is there’s no sense worrying about it,” he said.

Strickland said moving forward, he thinks board members will be more cognizant of past expenditures when approving new ones.

“It wouldn’t matter how far back [Suggs] went to an extent, Red Springs hasn’t had a lot it’s been given in the last 25 years, I guess since the merger,” he said, noting South Robeson is also in need of some work.

The consensus is resources are finite and every school has needs.

“I really don’t think there’s any fair way to do it that someone’s not going to get upset,” Hunt said.

Many athletic officials also agree some information is lost in the terse, spreadsheet-formatted report — whether that bolsters low totals, or conflated high ones.

For example, $62,838.55 given to Purnell Swett for the Slugfest tournament in 2013 included upgrades to the baseball and softball fields as well as press boxes, according to Hunt.

Coltharp said Red Springs was also given money to add air conditioning to its press box, redo the football field’s concession stand, fence in the football field, fix a collapsed drain and put together an area for athletes to watch game film.

“They spent all summer out here doing some stuff, it wasn’t just the weight room. The weight room is the crown jewel — that’s what everyone wants to talk about with Lumberton getting a weight room,” he said.

In Lumberton, a troublesome parking lot accounts for thousands spent. According to Register, the lot was repaved after a gas line underneath was found and it still bears potholes.

A report on each school’s athletic facility needs was also requested at the same time as the spending report.

“We have many needs in the Public Schools of Robeson County, but we need to prioritize those needs to help to make funds equitable,” Suggs previously told The Robesonian.

Requests range from small matters like sanding the basketball court bleachers at Purnell Swett and painting the gym floor at Lumberton High to extensive projects like a new main gym at South Robeson and a new softball field at Red Springs High School.

Hunt graduated from South Robeson, where he was a standout athlete, and later worked there. He said he “[knows] the struggle” at the school.

“That’s probably the smallest weight room in the county,” he said.

Register said there’s no doubt Red Springs needs a softball and baseball field on campus.

“Red Springs should be at the top of the list … Everyone you talk to would probably say the same thing,” Register said.

Strickland believes any disparities — perceived or real — will be evened out over time.

“I don’t see this rising again, I honestly don’t,” he said. “… All board members will be conscious of how these dollars are distributed.”

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