Schools face $2M hole

By: Scott Bigelow - Staff writer

LUMBERTON — The Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County meets Tuesday facing a large budget deficit and conversations swirling about school closures, staff cuts and school construction.

Chairman Mike Smith calls the situation “complex.” Two special meetings this year on improving efficiency by consolidating some low enrollment schools came to no conclusions, and the schools continue to look at a $2 million budget deficit for the system’s fiscal year, which ends June 30.

“We are still talking about school closing and consolidation,” Smith said late this week. “We have not abandoned this idea, and we may need to hold a retreat to discuss it.”

School enrollment has dropped by more than 1,000 pupils after two hurricanes, which reduces financing by about $10 million, based on per-pupil spending of $9,528. That number is well below the national average of $11,934, according to Public Schools First.

Erica Setzer, the school system’s financial director, noted in her April report that per-pupil school spending has not returned to its pre-recession levels. Spending, Gov. Roy Cooper says, is $855 per pupil less than 2008, which translates into a decline of $18.8 million for Robeson’s 22,000 students.

Setzer laid out the scenario during a meeting Tuesday of the school board’s Finance Committee, saying the system has been leaning on dollars from insurance money from hurricane damage in meeting operating costs.

Closures and consolidation might make the local system run more economically, but no firm dollar figures have been laid out. Discussion of closing South Robeson High School and consolidating several elementary and middle schools on that campus was shrugged off.

There are other opportunities to close schools that have lost enrollment besides South Robeson High School, which has just 446 students. Lumberton elementary schools, including W.H. Knuckles, which was hard hit by flooding, and Janie Hargrave, a tiny school which operates on a campus that was built in the early 20th century, are possible targets, as are Maxton’s elementary and middle schools.

A wild card is a state bond referendum, which has received little publicity of late. Under one plan, Robeson County would receive around $55 million.

“What we really need is school bond money,” Smith said. “Closing and consolidating existing schools is a short-term fix, and building schools is a long-term solution.

“We need revenue to build schools,” he said.

Closures and consolidation would follow in the wake, he said.

The Robeson County Board of Commissioners has traditionally funded the local system at one of the lowest rates in the state, but there are indications that it might be willing to do more.

There was a private meeting recently with Smith, Superintendent Shanita Wooten, County Manager Kellie Blue and county board Chairman Jerry Stephens.

“We have met once, but it won’t be the last,” Blue said. “Our board wants to see a strategic plan.

“We cannot keep putting Band-aids on the problem,” she said. “I am knee-deep into our budget for next year right now.”

Blue confirmed that, while the county budget is always tight, tax collections are up $2.3 million as of March 30. The schools preliminary budget is due next week to the county.

All of these issues overhang Tuesday’s school board meeting, and some cost-cutting measures proposed by Superintendent Wooten are on the agenda. The Robesonian has been told as many as 30 school employees, including some principals, recently were told their contracts would not be renewed.

The board chair confirmed the number, but Smith could offer no names. It is believed to be a mix of central office staff and leadership at some schools.

“The board will review personnel for a final decision,” Smith said.

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Scott Bigelow

Staff writer

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]

Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]