LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County, citing $250 million in construction needs, is asking the county to support the issuance of bonds to raise money to build new schools.
Although the request cites $250 million, a school board member says the actual amount of any bond referendum is likely to be far less.
The resolution submitted this week calls on the commissioners to do its constitutional duty to “fund adequate school facilities not now available.” The resolution is signed by Superintendent Shanita Wooten and Board of Education Chairperson Peggy Wilkins Chavis.
School district leaders are asking for additional money to fund “erecting additional school buildings and other school plant facilities, enlarging, reconstructing, renovating and replacing existing school building and other school plant facilities and acquiring any necessary land, furnishings, equipment and facilities therefore, the estimated cost of which is at least $250 million.”
The referendum could take place as early as November, but a special election is not out of the question, said Mike Smith, school board member and chairman of the Finance and Construction Committee.
“The concept was originally for the November election, but it may have a better chance at a special election,” Smith said.
The commissioners have not seen the resolution yet, but they already are looking at a $17.2 million PSRC budget request for the 2018-19 school year. Action is unlikely on Monday at the commissioners’ next meeting, according to County Manager Ricky Harris.
The $250 million amount is a formality and is more likely to be $50 million, Smith said.
“That is to show our total needs, which are great,” he said. “I am researching bills introduced into the General Assembly for a bond referendum for the public schools.”
State funding for public school construction is long overdue, Smith said.
“If we could combine $50 million with $60 million from the state that would really put a dent in our construction needs,” he said.
Like Smith, County Attorney Patrick Pait dismissed the $250 million number. Pait outlined steps that must be taken before a referendum is put before the voters.
After adopting a “preliminary findings resolution,” the bond would be referred to the Local Government Commission for its approval. The commission, which examines a local government’s financial capacity to repay bonds, must approve the project.
After giving public notice and holding a public hearing, the commissioners must approve holding the referendum and the amount. The county commissioners are responsible for setting a date for the referendum.
“In approving the referendum the citizens are approving an increase in property taxes, which allows for the repayment of the debt on bonds,” Pait said.
The repayment of the bonds is spread out over a number of years, usually 30 years, so costs are shared by current and future taxpayers. That provides for a more equitable funding by all taxpayers who will benefit from the bond projects, Pait said.
Smith said the school board has not targeted specific school construction projects that the bonds would finance. A school has not been built in Robeson County since before the merger of the five systems, which happened in 1988.
“The public will ask for a game plan before voting,” he said.
The school system is currently trying to build a school to replace West Lumberton Elementary, which was destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. The system also needs a new central office because of the storm, and is headquartered temporarily at the Angel Exchange building at COMtech.
A plan that was endorsed by the commissioners in 2016 called for closing 30 schools and building 14 new ones. Proponents said that it could be paid for with savings from energy efficient buildings, fewer employees because of fewer schools, and savings from recurring maintenance costs such as for climate control. The commissioners promised an additional $4 million a year in funding for the plan, which called for financing over 40 years at a total cost of about $1.4 billion.
The school board never embraced the plan, and it died in Raleigh when legislation needed to redirect some state funding for the local system did not get passed.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 of [email protected]