LUMBERTON — A motion to halt negotiating the purchase of the Angel Exchange property at COMtech was defeated Monday on a 5-3 vote of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners, a vote that followed a contentious hearing during which most of the speakers stood against the buy.
The same vote also rejected the second portion of Commissioner Lance Herndon’s motion, which was to offer to lease the 13,400-square-foot county administrative building at 701 Elm St. in Lumberton and adjoining county property to the Public Schools of Robeson County for use as a central office complex.
Voting against the motion were Commissioners Noah Woods, Roger Oxendine, Jerry Stephens, Berlester Campbell and Chairman Raymond Cummings. Voting to squash the Angel Exchange purchase were Herndon, Tom Taylor and David Edge.
Monday’s meeting was the scene of a 90-minute conversation between the commissioners, school board members and the public that featured give-and-take and short tempers. A crowd packed the commissioners’ chamber and flowed into the hall, where about two dozen people watched the proceedings on closed-circuit TV.
School board Chairwoman Peggy Wilkins Chavis spoke first.
“We are still looking at buildings, and we have eliminated Native Exchange from consideration,” Chavis said of the school board’s intentions. “It is not a good fit, and it would be foolish to buy it.”
Three other properties appear to be in consideration as a central office building, including the county administrative offices and a warehouse on N.C. 41. The Public Schools of Robeson County recently purchased a 48-acre tract on N.C. 711 as a site where a central office complex could be built.
Chavis said the school district does not know how much money will be received from insurance claims or Federal Emergency Management Agency related to Hurricane Matthew.
She said the school board voted 9-2 against remaining in the Angel Exchange building past the expiration of its lease on July 31. The schools are paying $9,000 a month to rent space in the building.
The questions, answers and speeches began with Commissioner Herndon asking that the priority be placed on building a school instead of an administrative unit.
“I would rather spend money on schools,” Herndon said. “With all the issues in our county, crime, low income, low educational levels, I would like us to focus on the right place.”
Robeson County has not built a new school since the 1980s, as capital funding for new construction from the county and the state has been nonexistent.
Cummings raised the issue of providing the current county administrative building as a central office. However, he repeatedly noted that the building, which currently houses 22 county employees, is too small for the schools, which has a central office staff of about 77.
“We have just begun discussing the BB&T renovations, and we don’t have funding for it yet,” Cummings said. “It could be two years or longer before it’s ready.”
County Manager Ricky Harris said plans are to move into the BB&T building in downtown Lumberton in January 2019.
Commissioner Stephens said he is not clear about the school board’s plans.
“You’ve got us confused. We’re just running around, and you have not talked about a school yet,” said Stephens, pressing Chavis. “My vote is for a school first.
“I have asked to be invited to a meeting to discuss construction, but I have not heard anything,” Stephens said. “I hoped we would let you stay in the Native Exchange for nothing until a plan for the central office was completed.”
Chavis said she too would build a school first.
Chavis’ allotted three minutes lasted almost 30. School board member Mike Smith, who was in the audience, chipped in.
“We do have plans, the drawings are ready,” said Smith, who is a member of the school’s Finance Committee. “We’re expecting to receive $12 million.”
In other public comments, Lynn Locklear summed up the dismay of many.
“I woke up one morning and found you’d bought a building,” Locklear said. “The confusion has come from your end, especially since there was no conversation.”
Cummings said the school’s need for offices is critical with their lease running out. Edge said he was prepared to offer the school the county administrative building last October, but he couldn’t get the votes.
Edge said Cummings was misleading the public, and that financing for BB&T renovations was not a problem, and work was poised to begin. Edge said he “resented” Cummings’ statements, although he later apologized for losing his temper.
But Cummings persisted, saying the county needed to proceed on BB&T work in a “business-like manner.”
At that, someone in the audience shouted, “Like spending $6.2 million.”
Applause broke out in commissioners’ chambers and in the hallway, with Chavis adding that “$6.2 million would be a big help for our children.”
County Manager Ricky Harris interjected that the county has increased its funding of the schools every year, over and above what is required in special school funding legislation. County funding of the schools, however, ranks 99th of the 100 counties in North Carolina.
The commissioners did support a plan put forward in 2015 to build 14 schools, Commissioner Oxendine said, adding “We got voted out.”
Other speakers included Jimmy Gilchrist, president of the Robeson County Black Caucus, who opposed the purchase of Angel Exchange property and moving the central office to Pembroke. Gilchrist said the purchase is motivated by the commissioners “own gain,” although he did not explain.
Victoria Wallace, a teacher at Carroll Middle School, called the purchase of the Angel Exchange property “outrageous.”
“What I need is heat in my room,” Wallace said. “The sink in my room has not worked in two years. My kids need computers.”
But the five who voted “no” were unmoved, and they continued to offer qualified support to the schools.
“I’m not voting to raise taxes for an administrative building,” Oxendine said. “If they come to us with a plan, we can move forward.”
Pearlean Revels, who was not scheduled to speak, was the last to address the commissioners.
“It’s time for the two boards to form a committee to work to the middle,” Revels said.
Discussion on the motion focused on where central office employees would be housed when school district’s lease expires, but produced with no firm answers. Representing Angel Exchange ownership, Bobbie Ghaffar said the schools have not asked for an extension. She also said the building is not in foreclosure.
Angel Exchange owes more than $95,000 in back taxes and more than $45,000 in delinquent fees to COMtech.