RALEIGH — A bill making its way through the General Assembly could resurrect a local effort to build new schools in Robeson County.
The head of a firm that had a plan last year to consolidate Robeson County schools, shuttering some schools and building new ones, believes the 2017 version of the bill would allow for a similar proposal.
“If the bill passes, it would allow for most of what was proposed last year,” Robbie Ferris said in an email to The Robesonian.
Ferris is CEO of sfL+A Architects, a Raleigh firm that specializes in building schools, military and municipal buildings.
The legislation, which easily passed the House and is currently in the Senate Rules Committee, is called the School Construction Flexibility Act. It is aimed at allowing local school decision makers more flexibility to enter into leases for school buildings and other facilities.
House Bill 600 passed the House with a 116-2 vote Tuesday, with all Robeson County’s representatives voting in favor. If it passes the Senate as currently written, it would allow counties to enter into lease agreements with developers for new schools and administration buildings.
Robeson County Reps. Brenden Jones and Ken Goodman are primary sponsors on the bill.
“It really helps all of our counties, all of our counties are strapped, and we can’t come up with the upfront money,” Goodman said. “This puts them in the business of building schools without the capital expenditures up front.”
Goodman believes that the option to lease new school buildings would be of great benefit to cash-strapped counties such as Robeson. The bill focuses on Tier 1 counties, the poorest third in North Carolina, of which Robeson is one
Previous attempts at similar legislation have run into problems that Goodman believes this bill avoids.
“They used money that was designating teaching positions,” Goodman said. “But if you started to grow, and you needed teachers again, you ran into problems. This bill has safeguards in it.”
HB 600 specifically states that school boards can use any money for leases “except for funds allotted to the classroom teacher allotment category and the teacher assistant allotment category.”
Other safeguards include a more robust bidding process when selecting a developer, with public bidding and then the top three candidates being evaluated.
The bill would also allow more Quality Zone Academy Bond financing to be used in Tier 1 counties. They are low-interest bonds are to raise money to rehabilitate or repair public school facilities and provide equipment.
School consolidation was discussed extensively in Robeson County last year, with Ferris offering a plan to close 30 schools, and building 13 schools and a technical high school. His plan was for a 40-year lease-purchase agreement that he said would actually save the county money over that time.
While the county commissioners offered to provide as much as $4 million extra a year to make the payments, the school board never got behind the plan.
Ferris said that the county could use money saved from maintenance, fewer salaries through attrition, and energy — the schools were to run entirely on solar power — to make the payments. But the plan depended on legislation being passed by the General Assembly allowing the system to use some state money for the mortgage, and even though it was approved easily by the Senate, it died on the vine in the House. The turning point was when the state Treasurer’s Office fought hard to defeat the bill, saying the county couldn’t afford it and put it a fiscal risk.
Another method of financing local schools has been through the sale of bonds, but County Manager Ricky Harris said last year that if the county were to sell $75 million worth of bonds, that would only be enough for two schools and the tax increase could be as high as 20 cents. Harris said last year that the Ferris plan would probably mean a tax hike of about 5 cents.
The last school built in Robeson County was in the 1980s. County officials say new construction is needed in the northern part of the county, where there is the most growth.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly