LUMBERTON — The decision by the Robeson County Board of Commissioners not to support any part of the public schools’ request for additional funding has prompted a variety of reactions from school board members, ranging from frustration to hope.
Last week, the Robeson County Board of Commissioners approved its 2018-19 budget that for the schools is unchanged from last year at approximately $13 million. Local funding for public schools in Robeson ranks next to last among 100 North Carolina counties.
A request to put a school bond referendum on the ballot in November was also stopped in its tracks. The bond approval process is lengthy, and the county officials said they will sit down with the schools to get more details, which they say will be needed for approval from the Local Government Commission.
As veteran school board member Mike Smith said, “We can get them the facts.” Smith has seen 28 local school budgets come and go, and he says the two boards need to get together face to face. They have traditionally met in advance of the county adopting a budget, but that did not happen this year.
That was a theme echoed by most school board members interviewed for this story.
John Campbell said he “is still shaking his head,” but he said “ill will does nothing for the children of Robeson County.”
“I’m getting over the shock of getting nothing,” Campbell said. “Possibly, we didn’t do our due diligence in explaining our needs.
“I thought we were making progress with the county,” he said. “Then, there was the Angel Exchange issue.”
In late 2017, the county commissioners offered to buy the building that is temporarily housing the school’s central office personnel. The county’s offer seemed to come out of the blue, and the $6 million or so the county would have spent on the Angel Exchange has apparently been taken off the table. The school board said repeatedly the building didn’t fit its needs, and the matter eventually just went away.
But some hard feelings remain.
“We’ve got to get over it and do what’s best for our children,” Campbell said. “Education is the central issue in this county — for the future, for economic development, for recruiting doctors, for everything.”
Not all school board members are over it. A frustrated Dwayne Smith said the commissioners suffer from an arrogance of the pocketbook.
“I just don’t think they understand the severity of the situation,” Dwayne Smith said. “We don’t have any dollars to waste, and county funds give us needed flexibility.
“It seems they are all about the public schools, until we ask for something,” he said. “We’ve got to get our plan together and sit down with them, but to sit down and get nothing is not fruitful.”
The commissioners during their June 11 meeting spent much of their time defending their funding of the system, also pointing out its gets the most low-wealth dollars from the state of any school system. A local sales tax is expected to provide $5 million to the schools for capital needs during the next fiscal year.
Dwayne Smith is not hopeful, saying he does not see a clear path for funding school priorities.
The county turned a deaf ear to any part of the $17 million request for additional operating funds. It was an item-by-item request, and some of the items were very important to the school board.
School board member Craig Lowry said the county’s rejection did not surprise him. “Being realistic, what we asked for was a lot,” he said.
However, Lowry said there were some very important issues in the school system’s request.
“One of my biggest concerns is putting resource officers in every school,” Lowry said. “Whatever it costs, it should be done.”
The price tag for resource officers is $1.1 million a year and additional equipment to make schools safe is $2 million more. There is no price tag on school safety and the lives of children, Lowry said.
The schools are working on details of plans for school construction and building a new central office, and the schools have some money pending from insurance and from FEMA for flood damage. There is also the possibility of as much as $15 million in state funding.
“We’re going to need help on all these projects,” Lowry said.
He could have been speaking for the entire board.