Robesonian

$1 billion plan to build 12 schools is just a plan

If you are a Robeson County property owner fretting over Sunday’s headline that the Board of Education for the Public Schools of Robeson County plans to spend $1 billion — by the way, that is 1,000 times 1 million — to build 12 new schools while closing 27, save your fret.

We got a better fret for you, that the local school system will be unable to build new schools, at least in adequate numbers, because the county is poor and there is no funding source that is sufficient. That should be the real worry.

The school board during its retreat on Saturday adopted the plan, which is just that, a plan. It could have also adopted a plan to take students to Mars on field trips, which is only slightly less likely to happen.

We wish it were otherwise.

There was little mention on how those 12 K-through-eighth-grade schools would be paid for, and that is the galaxy-like hole in the plan. County Manager Ricky Harris informed the board that finding $1 billion to build 12 schools would require an additional $40 million a year in tax revenue to finance, which would essentially double the tax rate of 77 cents for every $100 of property. Forty million dollars, not incidentally, doesn’t cover the cost of a single new school.

The county commissioners would never vote for such a tax increase, and if they did collectively lose their minds and tried to double the tax rate, the state would not allow it.

Are taxes likely to go up in the coming years to help build new schools? Yes, but probably in small bites at a time. In the meantime, a couple of things are happening as we twiddle our thumbs.

First, the cost of building a single school is going up — and quickly. Robbie Ferris, CEO of SfL+a, an architectural firm that put the plan together, says the cost of a single school has gone up about 30 percent since only two years ago, when the Big Bang approach of closing 30 schools and building 14 died after necessary legislation was not approved in Raleigh.

The other thing that is happening is that millions of dollars a year are essentially being flushed down the commode in an effort to keep county schools safe, functioning and comfortable for our children.

Actually, there is a third effect — our children are being denied safe, vibrant, ergonomically sound schools in which to learn. If you reside in the camp that this county’s schools, some of which are more than a century old and the youngest in its mid-30s, are good enough for these children, we will say it nicely: You are wrong.

It is likely that most of our schools would be closed if a hard look were taken. Most are crowded, unsafe, ill-equipped for learning and costly to maintain.

We will commend the school board for coming together and deciding on a plan, which does at least provide a map of how schools should be constructed moving forward, taking into account population shifts so they are properly located. The county Board of Commissioners, in 2016, got behind the Big Bang approach, so now we have both boards fully behind constructing new schools.

That is a necessary first step, but the second step, finding the money to make that happen, appears prohibitive. One thing is clear, and this isn’t going to surprise anyone who can do the math: Robeson County will not be able to shoulder the burden of building schools that are needed as we move into the future — at least not in a timely matter.

Twelve schools might be built, but most of us who just read this sentence will probably be dead before the last one is ready for class.