LUMBERTON — South Robeson High school was given new life by the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County on Tuesday.
The board members voted 6-5, with new Chairman John Campbell breaking a tie, to keep the school open for at least one more year. The vote came after the board members were told by its independent auditor that the school district’s finances are in “desperate” condition and hearing Superintendent Shanita Wooten’s recommendation to follow through on all recommended school closures and consolidations, including closing South Robeson High School.
The vote could scramble the superintendent’s plans for four schools in the southern part of the county.
When Campbell broke the tie, his vote was met with cheers from concerned parents and students who packed the room.
Opening the discussion, Wooten recommended closures and consolidations in Lumberton, Maxton and Rowland area. After looking to the heavens, Campbell made a passionate speech, saying the board needed to support equity for all students and to support their superintendent.
Other board members attempted to tell Campbell that he was not voting with the superintendent’s recommendation, but he failed to hear them.
“We may need to revisit the entire plan,” Wooten said.
Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, who represents South Robeson on the board, made the substitute motion to keep South Robeson open. Her motion was supported by Craig Lowry, Mike Smith, Loistine DeFreece and Linda Emanuel.
Lowry, who was assistant principal at Townsend Middle and principal at Fairgrove Middle, two schools slated for changes, said that “five to six weeks is a short time to close a high school.”
“What was said last night (at the public hearing) is not what convinced me,” Lowry said. “This is not about adults, it’s about students.”
Other members, including Randy Lawson, Dwayne Smith and Brian Freeman, argued for the superintendent’s recommendation.
“Here we go again,” Lawson said. “The superintendent gave us her recommendation, and I’m ready to make a motion.”
“If we are going to start undoing, let’s undo it all,” board member Steve Martin said.
“Why are we doing this?” Smith said. “It’s about money. Money. We have a $2 million deficit.”
Fairley-Ferebee directly addressed the audience at one point, saying “Don’t tell me I don’t know what’s going on with our children.
“We’re going to keep South Robeson open,” she said to cheers. “When we voted three weeks ago, we said we would leave the option open for South Robeson.”
R.B. Dean Elementary School in Maxton will close and consolidate with Townsend Middle. Janie C. Hargrave Elementary in Lumberton will close and consolidate with W.H. Knuckles Elementary to form a pre-K through third-grade school.
All Lumberton fourth-graders will attend Carroll Middle School, which will house fourth and fifth grades, and Lumberton Junior High School will become a sixth- to eighth-grade 8 school.
The South Robeson campus will add students from Rowland Middle School. Green Grove Elementary and Fairgrove Middle will remain unchanged.
The Board of Education also heard from Buddy McLean of S. Preston and Douglas, an accountin firm, who delivered the 2017-18 audit.
The audit was due in October, when Hurricane Florence hit.
“The situation is critical,” McLean said. “Losing 2,000 students is a really, really difficult situation for any organization.”
The schools have been running a deficit since May and paying bills from insurance funds received after Hurricane Matthew.
“As of June 30, 2019, you have a fund balance of $1.4 million, less than one month of operating costs,” McLean said. “This is a terrible situation to be in.”
After the meeting, district Finance Director Erica Setzer said the fund balance, with monthly funding from state and federal sources, will allow the schools to pay its bills.
“You’re at a desperate point,” McLean said. “If you don’t make reductions today, you will be in a desperate situation.”
The loss of 2,000 students is equivalent to 100 classrooms, 10 teachers, five teacher assistants, four principals, 2.5 assistant principals and 20 support staff, McLean said.
“With the 50 teacher vacancies you have, it can be done,” he said.
“I’m sorry it has to be this way,” McLean said. “If you can make these changes quickly, your general fund will grow again.”
The Local Government Commission has signed off on the audit. There are no significant discrepancies, and the Finance Department deserves credit for a job well done, McLean said.
A presentation by Assistant Superintendent Robert Locklear on the troubled Exceptional Children’s program indicated the schools got funded by the federal program, but barely
“We were notified in December 2018 that our EC program was out of compliance,” Locklear said. “We’ve had problems since 2013, and they are very serious issues.”
Staff certification, training, critical professional staff shortages and reporting issues resulted in the Department of Education threatening to withhold $4.3 million. In the 2018-19 school year, PSRC served 3,791 children in the EC program.
The schools have fallen behind in testing and placement of EC students year after year. Progress has been made on suspensions of EC students, and two school psychologists have been hired for the new school year.
Locklear has developed a five-year plan that will repurpose 23 EC teachers as support specialists. He also will give monthly progress reports to the school board.
In other business, construction on the Red Springs High School athletic complex has hit a snag. The low bid for phase one of the project came in almost double the $800,000 budgeted for it.
The board voted to renegotiate with the contractors and do as much work as possible with available funds. Red Springs is the only county high school without a sports complex, and some athletic contests are played off site.
The board voted unanimously for Campbell as chairman for the 2019-20 school year and Charles Bullard as vice chairman.
Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]