Block: Scotland consolidation should be decided by voters

Matthew Block - Mayor’s column

The Scotland County school system’s “consolidation” plan is a major issue for Laurinburg and Scotland County.

The “consolidation” plan consists of closing four more elementary schools in Laurinburg (I. Ellis Johnson, North Laurinburg, South Scotland and Covington Street in addition to Washington Park Elementary that was closed last year). Covington will be used for Early College, while the other three (IEJ, S. Scotland and N. Laurinburg) will be left vacant. The elementary school students will then be condensed into two schools; Sycamore Lane and a new school to be built. The county will have to borrow approximately $41 million to do all of this, and it will cost approximately $60 million (when the interest is included) over the next 20 years for the taxpayers to pay it off. The mortgage payments to the lender are estimated to be approximately $2.7 million annually. Most of this money ($2.1 million of the $2.7 million) for these payments will come by eliminating over 40 current school positions. The school system will not say which positions are to be eliminated and they will not say where the new school will be built.

The least expensive way for the county to borrow this money is by issuing a general obligation bond (G.O. Bond). To issue a GO bond however, the county commissioners would have to allow for a county-wide voter referendum on school consolidation. A referendum would slow the consolidation plan down some because referendums can only be held when there is a county-wide election. It is too late for a referendum to be added this November, so the soonest a referendum on “school consolidation” can be voted on by the public would be November 2018. The county commissioners could get around the requirement of having a county-wide referendum by choosing one of several other options for obtaining financing. These other methods would be slightly more expensive, but, they could get the money sooner and they wouldn’t need voter approval.

Closing these neighborhood schools, eliminating over 40 well-paying school jobs and obligating taxpayers to a huge, long-term debt is, to say the least, a very controversial plan. There is certainly no rush to do it. The current schools are functioning adequately. Elementary schools built in the same decade as our oldest schools are ranked as some of the best elementary schools in North Carolina (Glenwood in Chapel Hill built in 1950”s ranked #8 in the state, Estes Hills in Chapel Hill, built in 1958 ranked #10, and Carrboro, also built in 1958 ranked #12). So it would be hard to argue that there is any urgency from an educational standpoint. And no one is claiming that this “consolidation” plan is going to save taxpayers any money. It just redirects taxpayer’s money; instead of each year $2.7 million of taxpayer’s money staying in the local economy providing salaries for over 40 jobs, that money will be sent to an out of county bank to pay the mortgage on the new school.

So, it would seem to me, that when elected officials have an opportunity like this to see what the public (who they were elected to represent ) wants, the only fair and responsible action is to let the public vote on it. It should not be up to what I think, or what the superintendent wants, or what a school board member or commissioner wants but what the citizens want, especially with an issue of this magnitude.

Scotland County School consolidation is not a “done deal” by any means. The commissioners have not voted on it yet, though Commissioners Bob Davis, Whit Gibson and John Alford have stated they will vote for it and Commissioner Betty Gholston, the only commissioner who previously served on the school board, is adamantly against consolidation. Commissioners McCall, McPhatter and McCook have not yet stated how they will vote. And even if the commissioners vote to proceed with exploring consolidation, they will still have the option of putting it to a referendum for financing. The current school board, led by Jeff Byrd and Jamie Sutherland, is in favor of proceeding with consolidation without a referendum.

Scotland County voters can let their feelings be known now. This November, Commissioner Davis is being challenged by Bill Parker and school board members Jeff Byrd, Wayne Cromartie, Pat Gates and Charles Brown are being challenged by Brian Gainey, Rick Singletary, Karen Ackwood-James and Carolyn Banks. All of the school board challengers are reportedly against consolidation.

If this issue is important to you and if you feel Scotland County voters should be given the opportunity to vote on a school consolidation referendum, I suggest you find out where each of the candidates stand on this critical issue, and vote accordingly.

Matthew Block

Mayor’s column

Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.

Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.

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