LUMBERTON — Of those who will answer the question, more members of the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County say they oppose any plan to move the central office to the Angel Exchange building near Pembroke, but enough members are undecided that the vote could go the other way as well.
If the board rejects the move an expert on the matter says the system cannot be forced to locate there.
The Robesonian asked nine of the 11 school board members who answered our call if they would vote to move to the building at COMtech on N.C. 711, just outside of Pembroke. Five members said they would vote against such a move, three gave conditional answers, and one board member said he would vote yes. Calls to board members Loistine DeFreece and Brian Freeman were not returned.
The Robeson County Board of Commissioners members voted 4-3 on Jan. 22 to buy the Angel Exchange building and accompanying 29 acres of land. Commissioners Raymond Cummings, Berlester Campbell, Jerry Stephens and Roger Oxendine voted in favor of the purchase, and Tom Taylor, Lance Herndon and Noah Woods against. Commissioner David Edge had an excused absence for the meeting, and has said he is opposed.
The commissioners reaffirmed their desire to negotiate a price for the building, which is listed at $6 million at a meeting last week during which the public showed up and expressed opposition. Woods this time voted to negotiate.
Cummings has led the purchase parade, saying there is urgency because another buyer, never identified, has expressed interest and the central office could find itself without a home on July 31. The lease, however, includes an option to extend three months, until Oct 31.
The old building on Caton Road was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has since declared the Caton Road site to be in a flood plain, thus prohibiting the construction of a new central office building with the use of FEMA funds.
If the county buys the Angel Exchange property, the county commissioners cannot order the school district to occupy it, according to the chief communications officer for the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners.
“Simply put, boards of commissioners can’t make school boards do something they don’t want to do,” Sara Mogilski said. “Boards of commissioners allocate funds to school boards and law dictates that the money must be spent according to function and purpose.”
Peggy Wilkins Chavis, chairman of the school board, is firmly opposed to occupying the Angel Exchange building on a long-term basis. And she objects to the county commissioners trying to dictate to the school district.
“We’re supposed to make our own diagnosis,” Chavis said. “We’re supposed to make our own plans.”
She favors asking the county government to let central office move into the county administration buildings on Elm Street in Lumberton after the county moves into the BB&T building in January, she said. This plan would give the school district the freedom and time to decide when and where to build a new central office building.
School board member Craig Lowry spoke in favor of the Angel Exchange meeting at the commissioners’ meeting on Monday.
“I feel this would be a win for all citizens of Robeson County,” he said.
Dwayne Smith, a school board member, said he would vote no on any motion to move the administrative staff or the school board to the building. The issue will come up during the board’s meeting on Tuesday, Smith said.
“We are going to let it be known come Wednesday that we don’t want Native Angels,” Smith said.
Fellow board member Randy Lawson is against the move to Pembroke.
“I would vote no,” Lawson said.
The school district has been based in Lumberton, the county seat, since the school merger in the late 1980s. Lawson said the Angel Exchange building does not fit the school district’s needs.
The school board has taken multiple votes on the Angel Exchange issue, he said. And the votes always have been 9-2 or 10-1 not to move to the building near Pembroke.
“Totally against it,” said Steve Martin, a school board member. “I haven’t changed my mind in the last six months.”
Board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee didn’t take a firm position, but hinted toward plans to build on recently purchased land on N.C. 711, just short of five miles from COMtech.
”I am of the opinion, and only the opinion, I am willing to accommodate the staff of the Public School of Robeson County wherever deemed necessary until we build the central office on (N.C.) 711,” she said.
Mike Smith is uncertain how he would vote.
“There’s still a lot of variables in it,” he said.
Among them are how long the school district would occupy the building, if the district could find temporary office space until a new central office building could be built, and if the Angel Exchange building could be renovated to fit the district’s needs, he said.
“There would have to be some work done,” Smith said.
One consideration for board member John Campbell is the cost associated with moving to the Angel Exchange building.
“That depends on what it would cost the school district,” John Campbell said. “If we would get it for free, I would vote to explore it.”
But a central office building is not the district’s first priority, he said.
“The priority is building a new school,” Campbell said.
District leaders are discussing building a school that would house 800 to 1,000 students, he said. West Lumberton, W.H. Knuckles, Rowland Norment and Janie C. Hargrave elementary schools would be merged and the schools’ students moved to the new school.
“And that’s all it is right now, a discussion,” Campbell said.
The school board initially talked about consolidating services at a new central office, to include a planetarium and a bus garage. The Angel Exchange building has land for that to happen, but there has been no talk of the potential cost.
Also missing has been how much it would cost to renovate the Angel Exchange building to serve the system’s needs, and where that money would come from.
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or by email at [email protected]