I have been reading with interest the school board’s consolidation plan. Here is a quick summary. Last year, the school board closed Washington Park and Pate-Gardner Elementary Schools and moved those students to Sycamore Lane Middle School. The Sycamore Lane Middle School students were moved out of Laurinburg to Laurel Hill and Wagram, leaving the city of Laurinburg with no middle school. That didn’t cost much.
Now they are eager to start the expensive part. This involves enlarging Sycamore Lane, so that Covington Elementary students can be moved there as well. Then Scotland High Early College students will be moved from St Andrews to Covington Street School, after Covington is remodeled. Lastly, the plan calls for the closure of I. Ellis Johnson and South Scotland Elementary schools and building a new elementary school, site unknown. However, before proceeding any further with their plans, they need the County Commissioners to sign off on the $41 million dollars this will cost. The commissioners have not indicated yet if they are willing to take on this $41 million debt.
As mayor of Laurinburg, I believe that school consolidation, at this time, is a bad idea for Laurinburg. The reasons are many. Not only will consolidation create more vacant buildings in and around Laurinburg, further consolidation will make Laurinburg less attractive to raise children. Already, with what has been done at Sycamore Lane, we have to explain to parents why Laurinburg children have to be driven or ride a crowded school bus an hour each way to a middle school 10-15 miles out of town. Then, with further consolidation, it will mean bigger elementary schools with a higher student to teacher ratio. Those are not things Laurinburg parents want to hear.
The superintendent says most of the cost for their consolidation plan will be offset by gradually eliminating jobs, somewhere around 30 to 40 good jobs. Therefore, instead of $2 million a year of state money going towards these salaries, it is going to end up in the pockets of out of town developers and banks. That is bad for Laurinburg, where every job is important, and bad for parents, whose children will then be in bigger classes run by already overworked teachers. His plan also calls for pulling the $75,000 a year the school system pays St. Andrews for the Early College students and giving it to developers and banks. That is bad for perhaps Laurinburg’s greatest asset, St Andrews University.
So, on behalf of the city of Laurinburg, I am asking the county commissioners to go slowly and carefully here. There is no rush. I believe the majority of Laurinburg citizens would prefer to continue to pay current expenses, keep their smaller schools, smaller class sizes, keep the jobs and wait a couple of years to see how the consolidation craze is playing out here and elsewhere. As a possible example of the benefit of waiting, over the last 8 years, our school enrollment has dropped 100 students per year. In another 5 years might not the Early College fit into the high sSchool, and thereby allow Covington, IEJ and South Scotland can stay the small, prized schools that they are now?
Hopefully, in making their case, the school board will make the mistake of mentioning Robeson County and their grand plans for building 14 new schools. If the school board makes that case, remind them that the Robeson County school population is not shrinking, like ours is. Then, ask the school board why Scotland County school principals get four times higher local supplements than Robeson County principals, while Scotland County teachers get less than Robeson teachers? Ask the school board why our central school administration costs $124 per student while Robeson’s is only $50 per student. Are principals and administrators the priority for our school board, or are the teachers? Finally, remind the school board that for years your county employees have had to be cut and go without raises because the school system could not find any way to cut costs. Class size and student/teacher ratio was so important to the children’s education, the school board always claimed. But now, all of sudden, because the schools want a new building, classroom positions can be reduced, and it appears class size and student/teacher ratio aren’t as important to the school board as they once were?
For once, the commissioners have some say in school spending. I am hoping they will take whatever time they need to get it right, and not be pressured by the superintendent or the school board. I hope they will ignore the propaganda buzzwords of ‘net zero’ building costs, greater security, greater diversity etc. I have seen much of the same tactics here at City Hall, and it is nothing more than smoke and mirrors for simply being in love with the idea of building a new building that the citizens don’t want or need. Consolidation does nothing for Laurinburg’s growth, its children’s education, or its parent’s confidence in the school system. Consolidation does nothing to help its overworked and underpaid teachers. The only thing consolidation guarantees is that the citizens of Laurinburg and Scotland County will be paying off this $41 million bill long after the current superintendent and school board are gone.
Matthew Block serves as mayor of Laurinburg. He writes a bi-weekly column on the city and municipal issues.