LUMBERTON — The Board of Education of the Public Schools of Robeson County got outstanding reports Tuesday regarding the turnaround is its beleaguered finances and Exceptional Children’s programs.
Midway through the 2019-20 school year, the schools have saved $2.5 million in operating expenses compared with this past year. With its fund balance dangerously low at the close of the last fiscal year, the board closed four schools and eliminated 265 teacher positions.
The EC programs that work with about 4,000 Robeson County students with disabilities was failing to test and admit students within the state required time frame. Required paperwork, called Individual Education Plans, were not up to date.
Although problems with EC programs were statewide, Robeson County’s school district was having trouble hiring and retaining school psychologists and physical therapists. Where once the district had only three program specialists, the schools now have 10 specialists who train teachers and monitor compliance.
The turnaround has been fast and complete, said Jessica Swenson, a state Department of Public Instruction staff member assigned to assist Robeson County.
“Kudos to Robeson County,” Swenson told the board. “There has been a remarkable transformation in compliance. All referrals and re-evaluations are up to date.”
After the EC report, school board members approved the contract of a second physical therapist.
School Finance Director Erica Setzer gave a month-by-month report on savings.
“The money we are saving is going to historically underfunded areas of transportation, substitute teachers and the EC program,” Setzer said. “We have more children identified as EC than the state allows.”
The district budget shows reductions of about $700,000 a month. The majority of savings have come from a reduction of teaching staff, which was accomplished without layoffs.
“That deserves a round of applause,” board Chairman John Campbell said. “Where we were last summer was cause for concern.
“Let’s keep up the good work. This is some comfort after the pain we experienced last summer.”
State Board of Education members Alan Duncan and Olivia Oxendine, who worked with the county school board on finances, praised the local board’s work.
“Thank you for all your hard work,” Oxendine said. “We talked through some tough topics, and I wondered if it could be done, and here we are tonight celebrating.”
The county school board is preparing to address surplus property, including closed schools and the abandoned central office building. Robeson County government is given first option to take surplus property.
Two new school policies regarding drug and alcohol testing for bus drivers and other staff operating school vehicles, and the reporting of abused children became law on Jan. 1. The new policies will be presented to the school board at a later meeting.
Twenty school children won awards in an art contest in which they drew a logo for the Trash Talk Highway Hawk program, sponsored by county Commissioner David Edge. The program is designed to educate school children about not littering.
An entry from Keely Renee Oxendine, a student at Purnell Swett High School, was named the grand prize winner. Her work will become the program’s logo.
Reach Scott Bigelow at 910-644-4497 or [email protected]