School system faces tough call on central office

It might be a head-scratcher as to why the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County appears to racing toward the purchase of about 48 acres of land off N.C. 711 when four miles and a few hundreds yards down the same highway there are 35 acres with necessary infrastructure that the system already owns.

The problem is that land is westward, at COMtech, which is seen as Pembroke Proper although it isn’t.

Anyone who is familiar with Robeson County’s territorial politics knows the dynamic. This is classic Lumberton vs. Pembroke politics that act as an anvil around the county’s ankle as it slowly plods into the future.

If the school system were to use the 35 acres of land that it already owns at COMtech, then the central office would be perceived as being in Pembroke, and those who believe they must fight to protect Lumberton’s claim as the center of all things that matter in Robeson County believe a revolt would follow.

We doubt it. You could send a litter of kids through the Public Schools of Robeson County and never find the occasion to drive to the central office, so location isn’t that big a deal. If it were, COMtech is less than six miles from the old central office.

The chairman of the school board, Peggy Wilkins Chavis, says the 35 acres aren’t enough for what the school system plans, essentially a consolidation of services, which makes sense. She added as well that the COMtech land was purchased for a technical school, which will never be built for several reasons, but No. 1 is that after a central office is built, a school to replace West Lumberton Elementary must be. There will be no money left to build for a long while.

Even if 35 acres were not enough, and 13 more are needed, we are told there is available space at COMtech that abuts the school-owned property.

Additionally, the owners of the Native Angels building, which are underwater and desperate for a deal, are ready to let it go cheap. There are, however, valid questions about its suitability as a central office.

The Robeson County Board of Commissioners has asked the school board to share its construction plans, and on Thursday the system’s Construction Committee will meet so more might be known. The system needs to get busy, because further delays could jeopardize FEMA dollars that will help pay for new construction.

But FEMA isn’t going to pick up the total bill, and local dollars will be needed to build both a central office and a school. Will FEMA question ask why land must be purchased if land is already owned?

Lumberton folks have never gotten over the fact COMtech was built near Pembroke, and not beside Interstate 95, which was another political decision that betrayed us. That helps explain why COMtech has never attracted new and private investment, but is a quasi-governmental park that has cannibalized other parts of the county, the move of the Lumbee River Electric Membership Corporation’s headquarters being the most recent example.

The University of North Carolina at Pembroke and Robeson Community College have fulfilled commitments made long ago to have a strong presence at COMtech, but the Public Schools of Robeson County never has.

We don’t know if the land at COMtech is the right fit or not, but if the school system locates elsewhere, it needs to do so for the right reason, and not because of politics.

The system simply cannot afford to waste local dollars on a land purchase, especially when there are so many unmet needs in our local schools.