County boards need to unite to build school

We are fewer than four months from the second anniversary of Hurricane Matthew’s uninvited appearance in Robeson County, and any progress our school system has made toward the construction of a new school or finding permanent digs for a central office is hard to discern.

School officials are insisting, however, that like a paddling duck, the work is feverishly being done out of sight — and by a school board that has announced itself in “harmony.”

The central office has found a new temporary location at the abandoned BB&T building on Kahn Drive, which will be more convenient to most of the county and — more importantly — should enable the focus to be on building a new school, where it belongs.

The assumption, and we made it as well, has been that the new school would be built near West Lumberton, a community that suffered the hardest at the hands of Matthew because it lost its school. We said so in this space as recently as Thursday, but wish now we had held our fire.

School officials are publicly indicating that the location of the new school will depend on a study that determines where growth is occurring, and that is likely to point either northward or westward from the county seat. So expect some typical Robeson County turf battles.

We fully endorse the idea that a school has to be located where the popular growth will occur. To do otherwise would be to crowd existing schools with the new growth, and that makes little sense.

The other unanswered question will be where the money comes from. The local system didn’t apply for state dollars that had been made available to Tier 1 schools, the state’s poorest, but another round of funding is coming. This time, however, the money will be available to schools other than Tier 1 so the competition will be more intense. The system has to be fully prepared for that opportunity.

The Robeson County Board of Commissioners has already signaled that it has no plans to significantly increase funding to the public schools, certainly not the $17 million that has been requested, but probably not the $6 million that apparently was once just laying around when Angel Exchange was in the headlines.

The school system has asked for the county to put a referendum before the voters that would allow for the sale of bonds to raise $50 million, something this newspaper would probably endorse, but it will be a tough sale to the voters who have to be convinced the money will be wisely used and that a debilitating tax increase would not be around the corner. That request appears stuck on idle following the tragic death of the county attorney.

But the rift between the two county board remains on full display, which last week prompted a call out by a school board member who sarcastically thanked the commissioners for their generous funding of the system.

One way or the other, members of the school board and the county Board of Commissioners need to put aside their outsized egos and figure out what is best for all of this county in terms of where and how to build a new school. If they can demonstrate the capacity to build one, perhaps they can figure out how to build another.

It will require some adulting and genuine leadership. The coming months will inform us if these boards are up to the task.