LUMBERTON — The Public Schools of Robeson County whiffed on securing state money for the construction of a new school in Round 1, but school officials believe momentum is being achieved for better luck next time.
The system could have secured as much as $15 million earmarked for Tier 1 systems, but only for “shovel-ready” projects. The local system had not reached that point and did not apply.
Mike Smith, a 28-year member of the school board and a vocal advocate for school construction, said it was a “missed opportunity.” However, Smith said the “shovel ready” requirements in year one were too tight for the board to meet following Hurricane Matthew.
“There is a lot more to building a school than people think,” said Smith, chairman of the board’s Finance Committee. “Hopefully, we’ll be ready for the next round of funding.”
“We just aren’t at that point,” said schools Superintendent Shanita Wooten.
The system lost West Lumberton Elementary School and its central office to Hurricane Matthew on Oct. 8, 2016.
The public sentiment has been that the school that would be built would be convenient to West Lumberton, but nothing is certain. The school will go where population growth takes it.
“This started with talk of replacing West Lumberton, and we talked about adding students from Knuckles, Janie Hargrave and some of Rowland-Norment,” Wooten said. “If there is a greater need somewhere else, that’s where a new school should be built.”
The Board of Education will receive in the next few weeks a demographic study of population growth.
A number of difficult decisions must be made by the 11-member board, which is comprised of eight district and three at-large representatives. The school board will probably seek funding for the purchase of land from the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, which is comprised of eight districts, and seems to be at odds with school leaders over funding.
The Board of Education has asked for an increase in funding of about $17 million, but commissioners last week spent much of the meeting defending the way they fund schools, saying the per-pupil ranking of second worst in the state is misleading because of all the low-wealth state money the system receives. The commissioners could approve the new budget on Monday night, when it will hold a public hearing on the plan.
The school board appears to be “coming together” under Wooten’s leadership, member Brian Freeman said after Thursday’s meeting. Freeman is vice chairman of the board and in line to become chairman for the 2018-19 school year.
“The board was cooperative and very supportive of the data I put before them,” Wooten said. “They were very open to the data presented Thursday and, hopefully, data will determine where we build a new school.”
Seeking agreement on the location of a new school in the largest county in the state may test the board’s newfound harmony. The need for new school construction is huge because the county has not built a new school since the 1980s.
The data may put the newest school in growth areas in northern or western Robeson County. Another factor may be that Lumberton has some of the oldest schools in Robeson County, including Janie C. Hargrave and W.H. Knuckles.
The competition in year two for state money is going to be greater because only Tier 1 counties, the state’s poorest, were invited to apply in year one. For 2018-19, the field expands to more counties.
The school board agreed on a school design architects SfL+a created in January after a visit to similar K through eighth grade schools in South Carolina. The firm is the one that floated a plan to close 30 schools and build 14 in 2016, but the plan died in Raleigh when needed state legislation was not passed. The county commissioners embraced the plan, but the school board never did.
Both Smith and Wooten say momentum on the school board is growing for new construction. Earlier, the board agreed to seek the county commissioners’ approval for a $50 million bond referendum, opening the door to more construction.
“It will get easier over time,” Wooten said. “This is the most movement I’ve seen so far for building a new school.”
But she is aware of a strained relationship with the commissioners.
“We have a lot of work to do with the county commissioners,” she said.
Staff writer Scott Bigelow can be reached at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]