School system getting dragged to better future

When a school consolidation plan that was much discussed during 2016 died on the vine, we were convinced that there would be no new school built in Robeson County for, well, a very, very long time.

We don’t believe the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County as currently composed has a sufficient number of members with the requisite vision to pull off such an achievement. Worse, we are not convinced that a majority of county residents even want new schools, satisfied that aging, dilapidated, and in some instances dangerous schools are good enough for a poor old pitiful Robeson County that remains stuck in yesteryear — a self-defeating attitude that takes school board members off the hook to deliver.

But then Hurricane Matthew happened, destroying West Lumberton Elementary School, heavily damaging W.H. Knuckles Elementary, and also taking out the system’s central office on N.C. 72.

All the sudden, the school board had no choice except to build a new school, and there is now traction on that happening.

Back in the news is Robbie Ferris, the CEO and president of sfl+a Architects, who spent much of 2016 trying to close 30 schools in Robeson County and to build 14 new ones at basically no charge to the taxpayers. But that plan, which was never embraced locally, died in Raleigh.

Ferris, who has been under contract with the system the entire time, is now developing a master plan that probably has some folks fretting because of the word “master.” The priority is not consolidation, but first is building a school to replace West Lumberton, and second is a central office.

Recently Ferris took a delegation of school and county officials on a road trip to Horry County, South Carolina, where he showed off some schools that were the product of his firm’s vision. We are told they were impressive. Oh, it was Ferris and his firm that picked up the bill for the steaks, not local taxpayers.

The schools, presumably, are prototypes of what the new school and central office could look like in Robeson County.

Ferris is expected to work quickly, because the system needs to get the projects “shovel-ready” in order to qualify for millions of dollars in state grant money that is earmarked to help poor counties such as ours with school construction. We will be stunned, however, if both these projects can rise from the ground without the taxpayers picking up some of the bill.

Because the school system basically has no choice, within a few years, it will be able to point to and brag about two 21st century facilities.

It reminds us a bit of what is happening at Southside-Ashpole Elementary Schools, where a couple of hundred children will be given a better chance at achieving a quality education, not because of what the school board did, but because of what it couldn’t do, which was to stop the takeover by the state of the school’s inclusion in the Innovative School District.

So the school system is being dragged into a better future, not because of our Board of Education, but in spite of it. We believe as this new school rises and becomes the envy of all the rest, and kids at Southside-Ashpole get a better education, that parents and students across the county will notice and demand better for themselves.