LAURINBURG — Scotland County Board of Commissioners are being challenged by Laurinburg Mayor Matthew Block to hold a public vote on school consolidation.
Block asked the board to consent to holding a referendum on the Phase III of school consolidation which will see I. Ellis Johnson and South Scotland Elementary Schools closed and a new facility built on Old John’s Road. The property for that school was purchased last month.
Block, who is running for the commissioners’ seat, said the county needed to acknowledge the results of the May 8 primary election where he captured one of two Democrat nominations to run in November. Block and Commissioner Carol McCall will face Republican Tim Ivey for one of the two seats on the board. Block’s win knocked incumbent Guy McCook out of the race.
“In local elections nationwide, incumbents are reelected approximately 80 percent of the time … here in Laurinburg and Scotland County we’re seeing something very different,” Block said. “In the last four elections, the challengers have out-polled the incumbents.”
Block said that he had been chosen to represent the wishes of the majority of the county.
“As you must acknowledge, the success of the challengers has coincided with and is largely due to the fact that the citizens do not agree with these multi-million dollar building projects whether it be the $13 million City Hall or the $40 plus million school consolidation, ” he said.
Block referenced a Facebook poll he created concerning the issue saying that 350 people responded. He said 99.5 percent were against the school or wanted the issue to go to a referendum.
“This poll, while no means representative of the whole community does confirm that the highest vote getter in the election represents a constituency that is overwhelmingly opposed to this new school,” he said. “We also take note that surrounding counties are not forcing their citizens to take on school construction debt without letting them vote on it.”
He said that Moore County voted on the topic in the primary and Robeson County will vote in the fall.
Block said that he spoke to the Local Government Commission and been told that commissioners can still put the measure on the November ballot.
He claimed that if the referendum won, taking on a general obligation bond will create a savings over the “higher interest” limited obligation bond the county would be “forced to settle for.”
Block said he would generate a petition if the commissioners did not give in.
“Should you force us to pursue this option, the project will be significantly delayed as the opportunity for a referendum will have passed,” he said.
Jacob Pate, who is running for a seat on the school board, spoke against consolidation, saying that no one wants the new schools and that the project would negatively impact the county’s economy with lost jobs and unmanageable debt.
Board Chair Whit Gibson addressed the speakers on behalf of the board telling them that the board cares about the opinion of the citizens, but that consolidation would give students better, safer learning environments.
“The school consolidation plan was initiated by the Board of Education three and a half years ago and during that time this board studied the measure’s merit and generally has supported it,” Gibson said. “This plan provides a state of the art environment for 21st century learning; it creates much safer schools, a priority for the board of education even in 2014, and allows for complete diversity throughout the school district which enhances and promotes educational outcomes.”
Gibson promised that the debt on the bond would be paid from the savings found in closing the five old schools and through restricted sales tax revenue.
“Our responsibility as commissioners is to be stewards of the citizen’s money, and maintaining older and aging schools is generally not good fiscal management,” Gibson said.
He said that for the county to grow and thrive the county needed, in part, a better educational system and that the new schools should be considered an investment in the county’s future, but that the board of commissioners had no authority over whether or not schools could be closed.
“Our role in education is primarily financial and we base our decisions on present and anticipated conditions in revenues,” Gibson said. “This board does not have the authority to close schools or the keep them from closing. That authority rests solely with the board of education.”
By Wednesday of this week, Block had made good on his promise to start a petition to force a vote on school debt. He will need 10 percent of the county’s 22,431 registered voters to sign the petition.
But even if he gets that many signatures, there is no need for a referendum, according to County Manager Kevin Patterson.
Patterson said that Block is applying the wrong state statue to the situation.
Block has cited NCGS 159-60 which states: “A petition demanding that a bond order be submitted to the voters may be filed with the clerk within 30 days after the date of publication of the bond order as introduced…The residence address of each signer shall be written after his signature…The clerk shall investigate the sufficiency of the petition and present it to the governing board, with a certificate stating the results of his investigation. The governing board, after hearing any taxpayer who may request to be heard, shall thereupon determine the sufficiency of the petition, and its determination shall be conclusive.”
That statute does not apply, according to Patterson, because the county is not taking on a general obligation bond.
A general obligation bond is a municipal bond backed by the credit and taxing power of the issuing jurisdiction rather than the revenue from a given project.
General obligation bonds are issued with the belief that a municipality will be able to repay its debt obligation through taxation or revenue from projects. No assets are used as collateral.”
A county can reissue general obligation debt without referendum if up to two thirds of GO debt have been retired. Otherwise, a referendum must be held before taxing authority can be pledged through a general obligation bond.
The key word in that description is collateral, according to Patterson.
“If we do it as a general obligation bond; then we have to do it as a referendum. You’re doing that through the taxing authority of the county. If the commissioners don’t budget for the debt, the bank can raise taxes” Patterson said. “We’re not pledging tax authority. We’re putting a mortgage on the property, so this doesn’t dovetail with any prior project.”
Patterson said that there is no statute that regulates having a referendum on a mortgage.
“A referendum is not about the project. A referendum poses one question and that is: do we want to give the tax authority to the bank,” Patterson said.
In hopes of clarifying the issue, the board asked Patterson to have someone from the UNC School of Government conduct a public forum to help explain the issue.
“Some counties are having referendums on school consolidation and there’s a reason for that, but it doesn’t apply for what is going on in Scotland County,” said Commissioner Carol McCall. “Governing by referendum is confusing; it’s technical and there are aspects of it that are hard to understand.
I think this board has the responsibility to try and provide the absolute most accurate, complete information to our citizens about how you govern by referendum, and we need an expert from the UNC School of Government to provide that information.”
A referendum would not apply to the current issue of school consolidation, according to Patterson.
The only time consolidation needs to be put to a vote is if city and county school systems are merging, as was done in Scotland County in the 1960s, not if a school system wants to merge school buildings into new units.
Patterson is aiming to have the forum at the end of June.
Reach Beth Lawrence 910-506-3169