LUMBERTON — Members of the Public Schools of Robeson County’s Board of Education appear to be split on a plan to consolidate schools, although there is uncertainty because three members would not return phone calls to state their positions.
A Raleigh firm, sfL+a Architects, has presented a plan to shutter 30 schools in favor of renovating five schools and building 14 new schools, including a career and technical high school. Several school board members who are against the plan or undecided worried mostly about the speed of the process and where the new schools would be located.
The Robesonian when calling the 11 board members presented them with three options: for the plan, against the plan, or “on the fence.”
As of Thursday, board Chairman Mike Smith, John Campbell and Gary Strickland told The Robesonian they were in favor of the plan; Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, Peggy Wilkins-Chavis and Steve Martin said they were against it; and Dwayne Smith and Randy Lawson said they were still on the fence.
Multiple calls to board members Bosco Locklear, Loistine DeFreece and JoAnn Lowery were not returned.
“After teaching for years, I know we need new schools, but we need more time,” Wilkins-Chavis said. “Children are our future and we need to let parents get involved. When you hear something that seems too good to be true, there is a rat in the woodpile.”
Dwayne Smith worried about the speed of the process.
“We need some more schools, and we can agree across the county on that,” he said. “But the problem is that they are trying to get something in place within 45 days. You can’t have a cram session without getting involved and talking to people in the community.”
Fairley-Ferebee, who represents the Maxton and Rowland areas, said at a board meeting on April 19 that she had attended meetings in Hoke County when sfL+a was proposing new schools there. She said there were more opportunities to meet with the public to discuss the pros and cons of the plan during that process.
Robbie Ferris, the president of sfL+a Architects, said there is a rush to approve the plan because construction costs and interest rates will go up and because construction time needs to line up with the school year. A demographic study to help determine the locations of the new schools would take about three months to complete.
Ferris said a pre-development agreement, which both the Board of Commissioners and the Board of Education would have to approve, would have to be signed to hire a contractor to complete the demographic study. The pre-development agreement can be broken at any time with the county only owing the firm for the work it has done. After the study is compete and land is acquired, a second contract would be signed to begin the bid process so construction could begin.
Fairley-Ferebee said she doesn’t like the plan because there is no guarantee that there will be schools in Maxton and Rowland. Businesses generally ask for the location of schools before settling in an area, she said, and she is concerned for the safety of students traveling long routes to school each day.
Board members in favor of the plan say the need for new schools outweigh their concerns.
“The big reason I favor it is that something has got to be done eventually,” Strickland said. “There is nothing wrong with doing it now. Our schools have some serious issues as far as what is conducive to learning.”
Strickland voiced his support for the plan at earlier meetings during which he said that students in the county didn’t need to be stuck in the 1950s while other school districts have more advanced programs and better technology, two things Ferris said would be improved through the consolidation.
Erica Setzer, financial officer for the Public Schools of Robeson County, said it would cost the system $6 million a year to maintain all of the schools as is. The consolidation plan, according to Ferris, would cost about $4 million a year after operation cost savings.
The Robesonian did not poll county commissioners on plan for this story, but has been told by multiple sources that support for the plan on that board is strong.
Anyone wishing to contact school board members with their opinion of the plans can send them an email at the following addresses. The Robesonian did not publish phone numbers because they are private, and not school issued.
School board members can be reached at the following emails: Loistine P. DeFreece, District 1, [email protected]; Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, District 2, [email protected]; Peggy Wilkins-Chavis, District 3, [email protected]; Bosco Locklear, District 4, [email protected]; Gary Strickland, District 5, [email protected]; Mike Smith, District 6, [email protected]; Steve Martin, District 7, [email protected]; Dwayne Smith, District 8, [email protected]; John Campbell, at-large, [email protected]; Jo Ann C. Lowery, at-large, [email protected]; Randy Lawson, at-large, [email protected]