LUMBERTON — The chief architect of a failed consolidation plan for the Public Schools of Robeson County in 2016 is back in town working on a master plan for the system.
The school board last week granted approval to sfl+a Architects, whose CEO and president is Robbie Ferris, to work on the plan, with an immediate need for a new school and central office. Speed is important as the system tries to qualify for grant money to defray the cost that is projected as high as $60 million for both.
“The Public Schools of Robeson County needs a school facility master plan that meets the current and future needs of our district,” Superintendent Shanita Wooten said. “More specifically, school buildings must be able to meet the 21st century learning needs of students. Many stakeholders will be involved in this process as we work together to develop a plan that ensures our kids will have safe, secure, and quality learning environments in our schools.”
The master plan will focus on the entire district, Wooten said, but the immediate need is for a school to replace West Lumberton Elementary, which was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew, and also a central office, as the old one was also swamped by the storm.
The school will be for Pre-K through eighth-graders and will accommodate between 800 and 1,250 students.
“The initial motion is for a school that could possibly house those schools directly impacted by Hurricane Matthew in Lumberton,” Wooten said. “West Lumberton, W.H. Knuckles and two or three others closest to those two mentioned.”
Land still must be found to build it on, and the location will hinge on “travel time” for students.
“At bare minimum we need to help them understand where the new school will be located,” Ferris said.
Part of that will be a demographic analysis to determine, among other things, where the students live and how many of the students displaced by Hurricane Matthew will return, he said.
“That’s job one,” Ferris said.
The central office will be built at one of two locations to be decided by the school board.
The system recently paid $192,000 for 48 acres of land off N.C. 711. School board members have discussed building a new central office building on that land and eventually consolidating all essential district operations there.
The school system already owns 35 acres at COMtech Business Park near Pembroke, land that was bought years ago for the purpose of building a technology school. But school system leaders have said the COMtech site is not large enough to house a central office complex that includes all essential operations.
Time is important as the state grant money goes first to “shovel-ready” projects.
The system needs land, a building design and construction bids to show its plan is shovel-ready.
“The more you have, the better the chances you have of getting a grant …,” Ferris said.
Wooten emphasized speed is important.
“During the hurricane recovery process we realized we needed more concrete plans and shovel-ready projects so we can be prepared as soon as funding becomes available from the state and other agencies,” Wooten said.
One potential source of funding is the state Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund.
“The purpose of the fund is to assist lower-wealth counties with their critical public school building capital needs,” Wooten said. “Grant funds must be used for new capital projects only, and cannot be used for real property acquisition or for operational lease agreements, unless the lease agreement was entered into on or before June 30, 2017.”
Application guidance information will be issued on July 31. The application deadline is Aug. 31. Winning applications are to be announced by Sept. 30.
The application stipulates matching funds in the amount of “$1 in local funds for every every $3 in grant funds.”
There is $75 million in state money available in the fund.
Part of the process for choosing a design or a new school was a trip to Horry County on Dec. 5.
“We took a group of PSRC employees to Horry County to tour Socastee Elementary and St. James Intermediate,” Wooten said.
To date, no one has been selected to construct the central office or the new school.
“Sfl+a will move forward with program and design only of a new school, programming and design of central office, and completion of the school facility master plan,” Wooten said.
In 2016, Ferris took a plan to the school board to close 30 schools and build 14, including one technical school. Ferris said money saved from maintenance, reduced energy costs, and fewer personnel needed because of 16 fewer schools, could pay most of the mortgage.
The plan was endorsed by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, but never got the blessing of the school board.
The plan died when legislation that was needed to use state money for school construction costs failed to get out of the General Assembly.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at t[email protected]