MAXTON — A Maxton representative on the Board of Education says she isn’t quite ready to support a plan to consolidate schools, although the town’s mayor told the Board of Education this week he wants the proposal to move into the next stage.
Brenda Fairley-Ferebee, a Maxton resident who represents District 2 on the school board, said Wednesday that she still has one main objective — to have schools located in Maxton, Rowland and Fairmont. Her support could be key as the 11-person school board appears split almost evenly on the plan.
Maxton Mayor Emmett Morton, who had previously expressed concern about the plan, told the school board Tuesday he favors moving forward with a pre-development agreement that includes suggested locations for 14 schools that would be building, 13 K through 8 and a technology school. The school board has final say on locations.
Thirty schools would close under the plan; the county’s six brick-and-mortar high schools would be unaffected.
Fairley-Ferebee said she wants more the community input and several fellow board members agree.
“We need to meet as a board and we all have to agree on what is best for our students,” she said. “I am going to respect my fellow colleagues and listen to their opinions. My ultimate goal will be to make a decision in the best interests of my students.”
She has been adamant that she would only support the plan if it provides schools in three towns she represents, citing concerns for safety during lengthy bus rides. She also has worried moving schools out of the town would hurt local economies.
Morton previously told the school board and the county commissioners that losing R.B. Dean Elementary and Townsend Middle Schools could hurt economically because industry and businesses locate near schools.
Fairley-Ferebee also said Wednesday that some schools that would be closed “look great,” mentioning W.H. Knuckles as one.
“We read the study,” she said, “but we also know our schools. We’ve spent a lot of money to keep our schools up.”
Supporters of the plan say many schools are in disrepair and even unsafe, and that millions of dollars saved each year for maintenance would help pay for the lease-purchase agreement offered by a Raleigh firm that would build the schools. The new schools are expected to run off solar energy, meaning there would be no electric bill.
While the school board appears split on the plan, the county Board of Commissioners, which must approve some funding for it, appears strongly in support.
School board member Steve Martin said Wednesday that the board still hasn’t met to specifically discuss consolidation. Martin and other board members say more community forums will come after the board meets.
Fairley-Ferebee will hold a forum on May 20 at 6 p.m. at South Robeson High School.
Fairley-Ferebee’s forum comes after a forum held by District 1 representative Loistine DeFreece and at-large member John Campbell on Monday.
“The attendees had some very legitimate and serious questions and we think there were some clarifications from some misinformation,” Campbell said. “Not only District 1 residents came, but so did folks from Maxton, Rowland and Fairmont and surrounding areas in Lumberton. We were pleased and appreciated the opportunity to answer some questions and share what we know.”
Campbell said Robbie Ferris, CEO of sfL+a Architects, attended the meeting and shared information. Ferris was also at the school board meeting Tuesday, and although he did not speak officially, he did speak with some Maxton residents who had concerns.
Commissioner Raymond Cummings is holding a community meeting at 6:30 p.m. today at Union Chapel Elementary School. Cummings said that the meeting is for anyone who wants to attend and not just for the residents of District 5, the district he represents on the Board of Commissioners.
“We want to put out good information about the plan,” Cummings said. “I do this with all kinds of issues where the people need to be informed.”
School board member Gary Strickland, who openly supports the plan, has said several times that the children of Robeson County deserve better technology and newer facilities. He specifically applauded the idea for the career and technical high school which would offer training that would prepare some students for work after graduation.
Martin, Fairley-Ferebee and school board representative Peggy Wilkins-Chavis have all said they believe the plan is being rush.
The Raleigh firm build Sandy Grove Middle School in Hoke County, which is considered the most energy efficient school in the country. That was done with a lease-purchase agreement, the first one done in the state.
“In Hoke County, they went to the community first and their timing was good,” said Fairley-Ferebee. “Our timing isn’t good because we are at the end-of-grade testing time. I have principals telling me that some students ask about the consolidation every day. They need to focus on testing.”
The plan calls for a 40-year lease-purchase agreement, with the county using money from maintenance and energy savings, reduction in staff through attrition, and redirection of some sales tax money to pay for it. A property tax increase of about 5 cents is also expected.
There are bills in the General Assembly that would allow school systems to use state money for capital projects that also must be approved by legislators. Supports expect that to happen as the bills have the backing of Republican leadership.
Gabrielle Isaac can be reached at 910-816-1989.