Schools ponder move to BB&T center

By: By Scott Bigelow - Staff writer

PEMBROKE — With a July 31 deadline on its lease for temporary central office headquarters for the Public Schools of Robeson County, a school board committee appeared to favor moving to a second temporary home, this time in Lumberton.

The Finance and Construction committees met jointly Thursday night at Purnell Swett High School and reviewed plans and costs for another temporary home for the central office, which was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016. The search appears to have turned up the former BB&T service center on Kahn Drive in Lumberton.

On the finance side of the meeting, the schools may seek an additional $6 million in funding from the Robeson County Board of Commissioners to increase teacher supplements by 4 percent and to put school resource officers in all 42 schools. Additional funding for construction costs may also be on the table.

Temporary and permanent homes for the central office will be presented to the full school board at its regular meeting on Tuesday. The budget request, which is due to the county by May 31, will also be on the agenda Tuesday.

The committee also agreed to press ahead on construction of a new school and a permanent central office on 48 acres of land the schools own on N.C. 711. Costs to build the central office are likely to be scaled back to $8 million or $9 million.

The system is facing an increase in rent at the Angel Exchange building in Pembroke to as much as $165,000 annually, Superintendent Shanita Wooten said.

The district currently is paying $9,000 a month in rent.

Wooten has talked with the owner of the BB&T building about renting 20,000 square feet for $120,000 per year plus maintenance costs. She estimates as much as $300,000 in costs to turn open floor space into offices.

The option of cleaning up the former West Lumberton Elementary School, which also was flooded, for temporary offices was rejected. It is in a floodplain, as is the BB&T building.

“I can live with staying there (in Pembroke), if we move on with the new central office and not have to walk away from the money spent at BB&T,” board member Craig Lowry said.

Dwayne Smith, another school board member, was adamant about leaving Angel Exchange.

“I don’t see doing business with anyone who does not pay their taxes,” he said, referring to Angel Exchange’s large, unpaid tax bill.

Board member Brian Freeman urged the board to put all administrative functions “back under one roof.” Some administrative offices are currently at another site next the The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Board member Mike Smith said, “We need to go on record that we’re going to build a new central office at the 711 site.”

Finance Director Erica Setzer said the schools have not received the estimated $8 million in insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency money. The school board’s plan to build a $22 million campus is more likely going to be scaled back to offices only.

“We want to know how much we will have to build a new central office, and they want to know how much it will cost,” Setzer said. “We need to set a plan and go to design.”

The schools also lack money for engineering and architectural costs, and Wooten said a “sit down” with the county commissioners is needed.

In the 2017-18 budget the county gave money for a 1 percent increase in the teacher supplement. Much more is needed, Freeman said.

“If we’re going to be competitive with neighboring schools, we need to increase the supplement,” he said.

The school budget is being hit by increased costs for school safety, employee benefits, textbook costs and more. The schools will lose funding because enrollment is predicted to decline by 798 students, which will mean the loss of 27 teacher positions, Setzer said.

The Public Schools of Robeson County will also lose an entire school as Southside-Ashpole Elementary School and its 260 students is taken over by the state’s Innovative School District. The schools are tasked with providing transportation and food service to Southside-Ashpole, but it is unclear if there will be reimbursement, Setzer said.

“Right now we have more questions than answers,” she said. “We’re not getting a lot of details about finances.”

In the past, textbook funds were raided to pay for substitute teachers and custodial employees, Setzer said. But the state legislature ended that budget flexibility. The state allotted $987,000 for textbooks and digital resources this school year, and $800,000 is budgeted for next year.

School safety measures could also be costly as added resource officers may run as much as $2 million a year. Information about additional state funding for school safety and other budget items will not be known until the short session begins Wednesday. The fiscal year begins on July 1.

By Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]

Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]