LUMBERTON — Public Schools of Robeson County leaders are a step closer to having to solve a happy problem: How to spend a $7 million windfall.
“This would help our children in so many ways,” said Peggy Wilkins Chavis, chairperson of the Robeson County school board.
The money is Robeson County’s share of the $58.7 million the builders of the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline agreed to give the state of North Carolina in a deal reached with Gov. Roy Cooper. The deal stipulated the money would be paid in two parts, be placed in an escrow account and be used to mitigate any environmental damage resulting from the construction and operation of the pipeline and be used to foster economic development in the eight North Carolina counties through which the pipeline would pass.
House Bill 90, which fixes an upcoming public school class-size dilemma and expands fully pre-kindergarten for at-risk children, cleared the state House of Representatives on Tuesday by a vote of 104 to 12. The bill also dictates the pipeline money be divided among the eight counties and be spent on education needs. The counties are Robeson, Northampton, Halifax, Nash, Wilson, Johnston, Sampson and Cumberland.
The exact amounts for the counties are: Robeson, $7,752,278: Cumberland, $15,547,610; Halifax $4,030,076; Johnston, $7,666,167; Nash, $3,590,678; Northampton, $2,797,992; and Sampson, $4,110,288, according to information from state Sen. Danny Britt Jr., a Republican from Lumberton.
The bill, which received yes votes from all House lawmakers representing Robeson County, has been sent to the governor. Cooper has 30 days, because the General Assembly adjourned on Tuesday, to sign the bill into law, veto it or take no action and let the bill become law in 30 days.
Cooper said Wednesday he will neither sign the bill into law nor veto it, which means it will become law in mid-March. The Democratic governor said lawmakers heard parents’ voices and phased in lower student-teacher ratios in early grades. But the lawmakers’ actions on other matters in the bill were purely political, Cooper said. Their actions make it uncertain if the utilities developing the Atlantic Coast Pipeline will pay the $58.7 million to the state, the governor said.
And there are other uncertainties about the pipeline money.
“We have not worked out how the money is to be spent,” Britt said after the bill cleared the Senate this last week. “This is not a blank check. It will have a specific purpose for education attached to it.”
Rep. Charles Graham, a Democrat from Lumberton, said he isn’t sure when Robeson County will see the money or if it will come with stipulations on how it should be spent. No one he has spoken to about the money has been able to tell him the allocation details.
Regardless, the money is desperately needed in Robeson County, Graham said. It would go a long way to supporting education in the classrooms and repairing and renovating schools.
He voted for House Bill 90 to show his support for public education and the state’s young children.
“This bill reduces class size in K-3 classrooms which is long overdue,” Graham said. “This plan is phased in over a four-year period. It also fully funds Pre-K as a statutory requirement for NC Pre-K, which includes children with developmental delays who are at risk. It also funds the program enhancement teacher allotment in K-5, which is much needed in arts, music, visual arts, dance, physical education, health programs, and world languages, all of which are important in education well-rounded students.”
Rep. Garland Pierce, a Democrat from Wagram, also supported the bill because of its mandate to reduce class sizes in elementary education. He also favored how the bill phased in the class-size reduction so as to give schools time to properly make the changes, Pierce said.
Pierce has doubts about the ACP money.
“That’s still a work in progress,” Pierce said. “I think they really stuck the governor in the eye with that.”
To his knowledge, the money actually going to the school districts is not a done deal, even though some people say it is, Pierce said.
In his opinion the ACP money action was more about Republican lawmakers politically attacking a Democratic governor.
“It was all for political show,” Pierce said.
Show or not, Atlantic Coast Pipeline LLC, the builders of the 600-mile natural gas pipeline that would start in West Virginia and end near Pembroke, is taking a neutral position on the pipeline money issue, according to the Media Relations manager for Dominion Energy, one of the pipeline’s partner entities.
“Throughout the permitting process for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, we worked very hard to minimize impacts on the environment and historic resources. We adjusted the route hundreds of times, for example, to avoid environmentally sensitive areas and historic sites,” Aaron Ruby said. “For a 600-mile project, however, some impacts are unavoidable. As part of the approval process, we worked with all three states to develop mitigation measures for these impacts. In North Carolina, a memorandum of understanding was developed as part of this mitigation process. The state determines how to administer those mitigation funds.”
Regardless of how those funds are allocated and when they are dispersed, the idea that Robeson County could receive more than $7 million is a joyful one.
“The things we could do with that,” Chairperson Chavis said.
The Public Schools of Robeson County could pay teachers more, she said. The money could be used to repair and renovate schools and to buy books and other classroom needs.
“I’m glad that it passed,” Chavis said. “It would be so much help.”
Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]