Matthew losses mount by 516, and then some

There are plenty of opinions concerning the extent of the damage done locally by Hurricane Matthew, but a pretty solid objective metric was shared Tuesday night with the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County.

Erica Setzer, the finance officer for the school system, told the board that there are 516 fewer students enrolled in the school system at the beginning of the current school year than there were at the beginning of the 2016-17 school year — a decrease in the ballpark of 2 percent. Setzer said the number of students counted as now attending West Lumberton Elementary isn’t even enough for the state to pay for a principal’s position.

Setzer guessed, and we believe it’s a good one, that reduction is the result of Hurricane Matthew flushing people out of their homes and this community, especially in the West and South Lumberton areas.

Since these are students with mothers, fathers and brothers and sisters, when a multiplier is factored in, then we are talking literally thousands of people who have left Robeson County for higher ground, and there is no way to know if they will ever return and if they do, when that might happen.

A drive through the West and South Lumberton communities will provide additional evidence as they are now littered with abandoned, dilapidated and waterlogged homes that hold many memories, but have become eyesores and impediments to the resurrection of these communities.

Setzer pointed out as well that because state funding is tied to enrollment, that more than 500 fewer students translates into a reduction of about $1 million a year from North Carolina for the system, which could mean the loss of a dozen positions, presumably teachers. We don’t see that as a big deal since the system always has vacant teacher slots, and if there are 500 or so fewer students, then not as many teachers will be needed.

The number of students will be a factor as sfL+A Architects returns to the drawing board for school construction in the county. Robbie Ferris, who owns the firm, was the point man during 2016 for a school consolidation plan that was much talked about, but ultimately died when key legislation couldn’t get out of the General Assembly.

The plan then was to close 30 schools and build 14, one of which would have been a technical school. The new master plan, which is now being developed, will include a central office and a new school that will replace West Lumberton and W.H. Knuckles elementary schools, and presumably others schools as it will be built for about 1,200 students. A location still must be found.

So for the Board of Education, Tuesday’s meeting was a night to look backward at what was, and forward to what can be. The news that 516 students and their families are now counted as absent is a sobering reminder that the losses from Hurricane Matthew, an event that was 14 months ago, are still being tallied.