Leon Maynor, the councilman for Precinct No. 7 in Lumberton, was among a handful of people on Tuesday who pleaded with the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County not to permanently shutter West Lumberton Elementary School.
But that was the problem. Only a handful.
As the system faced a decision that would have monumental and regrettable impact on the local community, just a few folks remained to stand in the way of what essentially was a formality — an only choice, even if a difficult one.
“If you close this school, our community will never be the same,” Maynor said. “Our housing is about 50 percent gone, but I believe if the school was saved, people would come back.”
Maynor suggested that damage to the school had been exaggerated, and that it could be renovated and put back to work. But even if that were manageable, what can’t be changed is the school’s street address, and it would remain in a flood zone, meaning federal dollars could not be used to rehabilitate it, and also raising the question of the wisdom of challenging Mother Nature again.
Maynor was there because he loves the community he represents, and knows too well the struggles it has faced since Oct. 8, 2016, when Hurricane Matthew changed so much and forever. The community’s neighbors in South Lumberton face many of the same challenges, but their school at least survived the floodwaters.
Since their school was destroyed, West Lumberton’s students have been scattered, but mostly attending Lumberton Junior High School. School board member Craig Lowry on Tuesday, while expressing regret and saying the decision was difficult, commended the Herculean efforts of the school’s community, administrators, teachers, parents and students, and their perseverance.
The truth is, the school system’s hand was forced. Because attendance at the school has dropped below 100, a result of the exodus that followed the flood, the state will no longer pay a principal’s salary. We don’t see the sense in the local system, cash-strapped as it is, picking up that bill, especially when students for the foreseeable future will be attending another school, one with a principal in place.
It recalls 2016, when the hot summer topic was a consolidation plan that would have shuttered 30 schools with the construction of 14 new ones. Opponents worried about the loss of their community schools in favor of the larger, K-through-eighth grade schools, a concern certainly, but one that melted aside all of the benefits and amenities that 21st century schools would offer.
Robeson County, while the largest county in the state, should not have 42 brick-and-mortar buildings, which is part of the hangover from the school merger in the late 1980s. There doesn’t exist the courage to close any schools because of the concern of outrage in affected communties, so we are left with many schools with too few students and many others with too many students.
What is needed is a comprehensive map that can be followed into a more-structured future.
Part of that will be a new school that will be built to serve the West Lumberton community as well as others that are still in the must-be-determined stage. It won’t be soon enough, but eventually those who try to rebuild their lives in West Lumberton will have the newest and shiniest school in Robeson County, one that we guarantee will be the envy of all those who don’t go there.
When that happens, perhaps some of what has been lost in West Lumberton can be recaptured. We know it’s hard to imagine now, but we are sure it is coming.