Let Robeson lead on effort to pay for new schools

For those who believe our children deserve better than old, crumbling and dangerous schools, a meeting last week that included the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County, state Treasury officials and two local legislators brought some satisfaction — what appeared to be a consensus that new schools are needed.

Until then, we weren’t convinced that there was the necessary will to reboot a conversation that went silent when Senate Bill 554 died. But what was missing Tuesday was a viable option on how to pay for new schools, and those who are in charge of local funding, our county commissioners, skipped the meeting as payback for the school board’s refusal to support the school-consolidation plan that the commissioners had pushed and promised to support financially.

There were three revenue ideas floated on Tuesday, none of which we believe would meet this county’s needs, even when stacked on top of each other. They are: trying to grab more lottery money for school construction; implementing a 1-percent local sales tax that would mean everyone would pay for new schools, not just property owners; and selling $75 million worth of bonds.

But all are saddled with problems: The lottery money, even if all of it were used for school construction, is a pittance of what is needed; a 1-cent sales tax needs approval of the General Assembly, and with Republicans in control, getting a tax increase is unlikely; and we can guarantee that local voters in a referendum aren’t going to approve the sale of $75 million in bonds that would raise the property tax rate as much as 20 cents while providing revenue to build two or three schools, a fraction of what is needed.

So we circle back to where we began, and our belief that the state needs to look again at the plan floated by the Raleigh firm sfL+a that called for closing 30 schools and building 14 new ones using savings generated through consolidation to pay the bill.

For the first time last week we heard that the Department of Public Instruction didn’t believe the savings promised from the consolidation plan could be realized, though we don’t see the flaw. Currently the school system pays about $10 million a year for electricity and maintaining schools so that they are habitable, and all that goes away with schools that produce their own energy and money provided for maintenance that is included in the plan. The consolidation also calls for the elimination of about 170 support jobs — not teachers — that adds up to another $9 million a year saved.

Even though Senate Bill 554 ultimately died, it did generate enough noise that legislators now find it difficult to ignore the infrastructure challenges facing not only Robeson, but many of the state’s poor, rural counties. To that end, they have financed a $1 million study to see what can be done.

Why not allow Robeson, which has been ahead in this curve, implement the consolidation plan already floated — or a hybrid — and watch to see if it delivers as promised? If successful, such a pilot program could provide a template that could be followed elsewhere.

We continue to see no other avenue to meeting the facility needs locally, and last week’s meeting only made that more plain.

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