LUMBERTON — The Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County during its retreat Saturday approved a billion-dollar master plan to build to build 12 new schools in Robeson County.
The board, minus member Brian Freeman, met at the new temporary central office on Kahn Drive in Lumberton. The working meeting lasted six hours as the board discussed policies and rejected UNC Pembroke’s bid to takeover Union Elementary School as part of a state-sponsored, laboratory school program.
A team led by Robbie Ferris, an architect, a demographics expert and a project manager, representing SfL+a Architects, presented four options to fix or replace Robeson’s aging schools. Ferris is CEO of the Raleigh firm, which is making its second attempt to rewrite public school history in Robeson County.
“This is just the beginning of the conversation,” Ferris said. “Long-term, the option (to replace all the schools) is the best value.”
The plan that was adopted is to build 12 new K-8 schools that would replace 27 elementary and middle schools, several more than 100 years old. Each school would serve up to 1,500 students and be 100 percent solar powered.
The plan would also include a new central office to replace the headquarters lost to Hurricane Matthew and a technical high school. Both projects are on land the public schools already own.
With county Commissioners Lance Herndon and Jerry Stephens and County Manager Ricky Harris looking on, Ferris estimated the plan would cost the county $40 million a year. Harris said that would nearly double the county tax rate.
Nevertheless, Stephens gave the plan a ringing endorsement. Two years ago, the commissioners approved and the school board rejected a similar plan by SfL+a to build 14 schools while closing 30.
“We’ve got to do something with our 100-year-old schools,” Stephens said. “I want to see this happen before I pass over the other yonder.”
SfL+a evaluated all of Robeson’s elementary and middle schools and found only five meet the standards of the state Department of Public Instruction. Ten schools got extremely low ratings, with R.B. Dean Elementary School in Maxton finishing dead last.
Michael Miller, a consultant and demographer with Numerix Solutions of Charleston, S.C., evaluated school enrollments and population in the county. The data provided “optimal sites” for new schools, he said.
County school enrollment is declining slightly from a high of 23,500 in 2014 to an estimated 22,500 in 2022, Miller projected. South Robeson’s population is declining most, and north Robeson is growing and will continue to grow as the southern leg of the Interstate 95 loop around Fayetteville is completed.
Miller gave general locations for the new schools that are clustered around Robeson’s municipalities, with four schools near Lumberton and three school in northern Robeson.
School locations brought questions from school board member Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, who represents South Robeson. There is no school projected for the Rowland area between Fairmont, Maxton and Pembroke.
“My concern is that there is no school in Rowland to serve Southside Ashpole, Fairgrove, Green Grove and Rowland Middle School,” Fairley-Ferebee said. “That’s 1,000 students.”
School locations and closings will prove challenging for the board, but Chairman Mike Smith, who has served 28 years on the board, said he is “ready to move.”
“Yes, we will close some schools,” Smith said. “Change has to happen.”
With that, the board voted unanimously to take the first step towards a possible school construction boom.
The first challenge will be to build the first school, which may be financed through insurance settlements, Federal Emergency Management Agency funds, a $1 million grant from Golden LEAF and $15 million from a state school construction program for low wealth schools.
“A shovel-ready plan is due for state funding by Aug. 1, 2019, and a design by March,” said SfL+a architect Boyd Graham. “If I don’t have a site, it will be difficult to get funding.”
Ferris and his SfL+a team gave the school board four options, including one that would renovate existing schools and another that would renovate the five best schools and build nine additional schools. He estimated the plan to build all new schools to be the most economical.
The new solar-powered schools would be two stories with classrooms that look onto commons areas. School board members have visited a similar school in South Carolina.
“We want these to be schools that children want to attend, and will want to show up early and leave late,” said architect Boyd.
Robeson has not built a new school in more than 30 years, and its aging buildings lack handicapped accessibility, safety and other needed features. The new schools would have a useful life of 40 years and no energy costs, Boyd said.
A planned laboratory school to be run by UNC Pembroke at Union Elementary School, beginning in the 2020-21 school year, was rejected. The school would be a training ground for teachers and principals and used as a model for turning around low-performing schools.
The board was concerned about the requirement that students attending the school must first apply, which might leave some current Union students looking elsewhere for a school. The school board and administrators have met several times with UNCP and UNC administrators.
School board members Linda Emanuel, Brenda Fairley-Ferebee and Randy Lawson expressed concerned with the lack of a plan from UNCP. The proposal consisted of a single sheet of paper.
“If they are going to turn around a low-performing school, what is the plan?” Lawson said.
Alfred Bryant, UNCP’s dean of the School of Education, said that once the takeover is approved, a plan would be worked out with the Public Schools of Robeson County. He said, “It’s your school, and you know best what their students’ needs are.”
After further discussion, Superintendent Shanita Wooten weighed in, saying, “We are not in the best position to start a lab school at this time.” The board voted to reject UNCP’s proposal.
Union would be the second Robeson school to be taken over and converted to quasi-charter schools by decrees from the North Carolina General Assembly. Southside Ashpole Elementary will be operated, starting this school year, under the state’s Innovative School District.
The lab school program is part of a large program for UNC schools to take over all or parts of schools as training grounds. Two finished their first year.
Meanwhile, the Public Schools of Robeson County is building a team to assist in turning around its low-performing schools. It will focus on a number of key initiatives involving teacher and principal training.
In other action, the board set an athletic transfer policy that allows student-athletes to transfer once per school year without penalty, but a second transfer would result in disqualifying him or her for the remainder of the school year.
Robeson’s larger school transfer policy was discussed but no action was taken. Approximately 2,000 students attend school out of district in Robeson County.