Schools want $50M bond referendum for construction needs

By: T.C. Hunter - Managing editor

LUMBERTON — Leaders of the Public Schools of Robeson County are wasting no time getting to the Robeson County Board of Commissioners a petition for a bond referendum they want before voters in November.

School board Attorney Grady Hunt said Wednesday he has been asked by the school board to prepare a petition asking county commissioners to approve the sale of general obligation bonds to finance school construction projects.

School board members voted Tuesday to seek a referendum on a $50 million local bond issue. Voters have the final say through the referendum.

If voters say yes, then the bonds are sold to investors. The county would pay back the money over the years but typically the plan is to do so without raising taxes.

The proposal will be presented to the school board for approval during the board’s May 15 meeting. The school board normally would meet May 8, but it was delayed a week because of the primary election on May 8

If the school board members approve the petition, it will be presented to the Board of Commissioners during its meeting on May 21, Hunt said.

“The ball’s in the commissioners’ court thereafter,” Hunt said.

If they approve it, the commissioners will decide what dollar amount in bonds to sell and when the referendum vote would take place.

The idea of a bond referendum was proposed Tuesday by school board member Mike Smith.

“We’re trying to get it on the November ballot so the people can decide,” Smith said.

Smith said the state is planning a $1.9 billion bond referendum that would provide about $60 million for Robeson County, but pointed out that doesn’t come close to meeting the local system’s needs.

The General Election is on Nov. 6, which leaves the school board about seven months to get a referendum proposal drafted, presented to the county Board of Commissioners and placed on the November ballots.

“I think it can be done,” Smith said.

County Board of Elections Director G.L. Pridgen agrees.

“We should be able to make that,” Pridgen said.

Two of the most immediate facilities needs are replacing West Lumberton Elementary School and its central office building. Both buildings were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew.

West Lumberton’s 90 students have been taking classes at Lumberton Junior High. School district leaders have been searching for a site for a replacement school since. The major obstacles are finding a site large enough that is not in a designated flood zone, and finding the money to pay for it.

The school district still is waiting on insurance money and funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for those and other needs.

Public school leaders recently paid $192,000 for 48 acres of land off N.C. 711, near the site of the old central office building on Caton Road in Lumberton. School board members have discussed building a new central office building there and eventually consolidating all essential district operations at that site.

Other sites mentioned have been the county administrative offices on Elm Street, which will be vacant when the BB&T building is ready for occupancy, and a warehouse on N.C. 41, just outside of Lumberton.

The county commissioners toyed with the idea of buying Angel Exchange for a central office, but school leaders said they didn’t want it.

The system’s 40-some schools are in varying states of disrepair, with the last school built, Purnell Swett High, constructed in the 1980s.

In 2016 the commissioner backed a plan to shutter 30 schools and build 14, including a technical school. The idea was to finance the $1.4 billion project over 40 years and pay the mortgage essentially from savings related to fewer schools that required fewer staff, schools that produce their own energy, and annual savings in maintenance costs. The commissioners pledged as much as $4 million a year toward the mortgage.

The school board never got behind the proposal, and it died when legislation in Raleigh that was needed to make it work failed to gain approval.

Robeson County is like rural school systems across the state that have old schools and don’t have the property tax base to raise revenue to build new ones.

T.C. Hunter

Managing editor

Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]

Reach T.C. Hunter by calling 910-816-1974 or via email at [email protected]