LUMBERTON — The doors were closed forever on West Lumberton Elementary School after a unanimous vote Tuesday night of the Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robson County, and students will be reassigned to W.H. Knuckles Elementary School in South Lumberton for the 2018-19 school year.
In a public hearing, a small but passionate group of parents of West Lumberton Elementary School children begged the Board of Education to keep their school together.
The school was flooded by Hurricane Matthew in October 2016 and declared a total loss by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The students were moved to Lumberton Junior High School, but attendance dropped below 100 students and the state will no longer pay for its principal.
“We are holding this public hearing in order to decide whether to close the school,” Superintendent Shanita Wooten told the parents.
“By state statute, before a school can be closed, there must be a public hearing,” said Grady Hunt, school attorney. “This is it.”
Lumberton City Councilman Leon Maynor, who represents West Lumberton, called on the board to revisit its decision to abandon the school. He believes the damage is not as severe as initially determined.
“If you close this school, our community will never be the same,” Maynor said. “Our housing is about 50 percent gone, but I believe if the school was saved, people would come back.”
Four parents spoke to the board and all of them had children at the school.
“This is a disaster again,” said Linda Brewer, who has three children at the school. “It was a disaster when the school moved after the hurricane and it’s a disaster with teachers going one way and children another.”
Crystal Norton said, “If crying would help, I would cry a river.”
Kelsey Hunt lives out of district, but said she would drive 40 miles if she had to to get her children there. Hunt’s two children started in pre-kindergarten at the school.
The parents praised the teachers and principal at the school, and school board member Craig Lowry said their good work after the hurricane needed acknowledgement.
“This is not an easy decision, even though it seemed that way,” Lowry said. “There was outstanding work done there after Matthew.”
Finance Director Erica Setzer told the board that the state budget is final after the House overrode Gov. Roy Cooper’s veto Tuesday. Costs for retirement and health insurance will increase.
The public schools lowest paid employees will not be included in the state’s “living wage” program, which would have raised their pay to $15 an hour, or $31,200 for 12-month employees. Cafeteria workers make approximately $12 an hour.
The Robesonian incorrectly reported that cafeteria, custodial, teacher assistants and other school employees were included in the pay increase. Instead, non-certified and central office personnel will receive a 2 percent raise, Setzer said. Teacher pay increases ranged from zero to 14.8 percent depending on years of experience.
Lumberton High School theatre teachers requested lighting and curtain replacement that may cost as much as $889,000. Parts of the lighting system date back to the 1940s and is unsafe and other parts are not functioning at all.
The board referred the matter to its Finance Committee for consideration.
The board recessed until 6 p.m. on Thursday when it will meet again in the Lumberton City Hall chambers.