More words on new schools, but where’s the money?

On Tuesday members of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County will huddle with Treasury officials and two local lawmakers to discuss the need for new schools, but missing will be the county commissioners, who are boycotting the meeting.

In doing so, the commissioners will exit the high road, which they had traveled previously in pushing a plan for new schools that our children desperately deserve. They are also signaling to the school board — and the voting public — that new schools, as we have predicted, are unlikely to be built anytime soon because the money locally doesn’t exist.

We defer to Jane Smith, the state senator who represents Robeson County and called for the meeting: “This is an extremely important issue for our county. We need to build schools and we need to figure out how to pay for them. We know we can’t build them with our tax base.”

Therein is the rub: Robeson County taxpayers cannot afford to build a sufficent number of schools to put more than a dink in the problem, which is why Senate Bill 554, which the Treasury’s Office fought and killed with an assist from our school board while our legislators napped, was critical. That legislation, which we hope can be revisited in some form when the General Assembly reconvenes in 2017, was critical because it allowed for some state money to be used for building schools.

We can tell you now that nothing more will emerge from Tuesday’s meeting beyond an acknowledgement of the need — of that, we aren’t even convinced, because some school board members are oblivious to the infrastructure challenge — and the suggestion that bonds be sold to raise about $75 million to build two or three schools. But voters will never say yes in such a referendum because that money pays for only two or three schools and comes with a tax hike of up to 20 cents.

There is simply no way that poor, rural counties — and we are among the poorest with probably the largest infrastructure problem — can build new schools in adequate numbers without the help of the state. Perhaps all the noise that came from this county while school consolidation was pushed was heard in Raleigh because we learned last week that $1 million has been put aside to study the infrastructure challenges facing poor school systems.

We are glad that Smith called the meeting if only because it will again put the problem in all caps. The meeting should have been held months ago, but egos got in the way. Understand that much of the opposition on the school board had less to do with whether new schools are needed or not, but that some members didn’t feel sufficiently involved in the process by the commissioners when they called for the Ferris study.

The commissioners are taking what they think is a strong approach, but in truth it shows weakness, demonstrating an indifference to what really matters here, which is to identify a road that can be traveled. If nothing else, the commissioners should pull up a chair and smirk when school board members and Treasury officials realize the impossibility of the task without state money.

Absent the resurrection of SB554 or a satisfactory hybrid, Robeson’s and other poor school systems will have to make do with what they have. State legislators are poised to spend $1 million to figure out what we just told them.


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