LAURINBURG –Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Block said he felt it was his duty as a citizen and elected leader to urge Scotland County commissioners to rethink their stance on consolidation.
Block spoke during the public comment portion of this week’s county board meeting.
“I’ve been a vocal opponent of it, as mayor because I think it harms our most vulnerable neighborhoods and as citizen because I don’t like the fact that it’s going to cause jobs … and a lot of money to leave the county,” he said.
The school consolidation plan is based on a capacity study performed in 2014 that showed that the county’s middle schools and several elementary schools were underpopulated. When the district looked into the capacity of the buildings and found that none were operating at over a 65 percent capacity. The plan is to close several elementary schools, add on to others and build one new school.
School officials said closing some of the aging schools along with attrition will save money that can be put back into the classrooms and the schools will not have to cut teachers.
But Block said he was concerned that jobs would be lost. He cited an article that ran in The Exchange in April 2016 that quoted Superintendent Ron Hargrave as saying 33 licensed or contract staff positions, with average salaries of $58,000 a year, and four classified staff, with average salaries of $30,000 a year, would be cut as a result of the consolidation.
Those 37 jobs would cost the county $2 million in taxable income, according to Block.
“Most of the positions that are being eliminated are locally paid teachers,” Block said. “So to say that it’s not going to affect the number of teachers we have is just factually incorrect.”
Block maintains that the loss of those positions will affect the teacher-student ratio. He said that any savings to the school system by eliminating those positions would only be spent on the mortgage for new construction.
“No one is saying the net burden of this is going to decrease for taxpayers,” Block said, referring to the school floor tax which supplements state funding for schools with local tax dollars.
The school floor finances 61 jobs in the district: 44 teachers, four directors, five assistants and principals, three media specialists, two nurses and three psychologists, according to Block,
“I understand you all want to work closely with the schools, and that’s wonderful,” Block said. “But it’s one thing to work closely and it’s another thing just to bend over and take whatever they deal you.”
The issue of consolidation is a chance for the commissioners to get answers to questions over the high cost of administration in the county, according to Block. The average administrative cost is $124 per student versus $50 in Robeson County.
“Citizens don’t mind spending on education, but make sure money spent is going to the classroom not on administration,” Block said.
Block told the board one argument in favor of consolidation was the difference in PTO donations between schools in different neighborhoods. He citing $72,000 in South Scotland’s received by PTO versus $72 at I. Ellis Johnson. Block said the case had been made that consolidating schools would combine those amounts to benefit students fairly and suggested that perhaps PTO donations could be combined countywide without combining schools.
Block said the commissioners were in a “good bargaining position” because everyone wants to work together but questions should be asked about the plan.
Commissioner John Alford said the school issue will be addressed.
“Every citizen in Scotland County in the last 10 to 20 years has expressed deep concern about the school floor. This is the first administration that has agreed to work with the county commissioners to address this,” Alford said. “They have a plan that will reduce the school floor.”
Alford said if the county did not go along with the school board’s proposal, the school floor tax would continue to rise.
Commissioner Betty Blue Gholston, a former member of the school board, disagreed saying that she did not believe the county needed to take on nearly $40 million in debt just to reduce the school floor.
County resident Charles Parker voiced his opinion concerning the school floor.
“We don’t need a school floor; we only needed it to start with,” Parker said. “The school floor has served its purpose … the time is for it to be done away with so that this board and the school board can and this board can work together for the benefit of the county.”
Parker said the reason for the long-standing acrimony between the two boards was a result of the school floor.
Gholston suggested putting the consolidation to a referendum because there is so much trepidation by residents over the issue.
The county is currently gearing up for Phase II of the project which would eliminate South Scotland, I. Ellis Johnson, and North Laurinburg elementary schools, build a new elementary school and add classrooms to Sycamore Lane and Laurel Hill. The projected cost for consolidation is $35 million which does not account for the cost for 20-acres of property to build the new facility or new technology for the schools.
Assistant Superintendent of Auxiliary Services, Larry Johnson said the new school and additions to Laurel Hill and Sycamore Lane could be completed by August 2018.
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169