LUMBERTON — Frustrations over the state of some Robeson County schools are bubbling over six months after Hurricane Matthew left a path of destruction in October, and the most recent anger is over how children are being fed at W.H. Knuckles Elementary School.
Parents and school board members have been vocal at what they perceive as a lack progress being made in the school system’s recovery. The hurricane caused millions of dollars of damage to school buildings and made West Lumberton Elementary School uninhabitable, and school officials say getting insurance money and federal dollars takes time.
W.H. Knuckles students have been eating lunch in the gym because their cafeteria was lost to floodwaters. The kitchen and dining area must be rebuilt, a project that will not be completed this school year, which is nearing an end.
Food is being prepared at Tanglewood Elementary and driven to W.H. Knuckles. Parents say it is cold by the time students are served the food in the Knuckles gym, which has tables and chairs.
“They need warmers keeping the food fresh and good to eat,” said Jennifer Jones, the mother of a Knuckles student. “I think it is a serious problem and makes a real difference in students’ ability to learn.”
Knuckles parents are concerned with what they see as a lack of progress in bringing back hot meals.
“I feel like our concerns are being swept up under the rug,” said another Knuckles parent who asked not to be identified.
Jones believes it is important for students to eat a hot meal so they have the energy to complete their school day.
“If you go out to eat and they bring you a cold plate, it’s not good,” Jones said. “The food sits and sweats for an hour before those babies get to it. I’m sure the cooks do their best, but an hour later that can’t be tasting good.”
Principal Eric Sanders said the quality of the food is good and the school is able to keep hot and cold food stored successfully.
“I sample the meals, and they are doing a good job keeping them at the right temperature,” Sanders said. “For the most part, the meals are consistent with what we were serving before.”
Interim Superintendent Shanita Wooten said it will take time for normalcy to return.
“We have received bids for the estimated cost of structural damages and to replace contents lost,” she said. “And now we are preparing to move forward to have the W.H. Knuckles cafeteria up and running for August 2017 for our students.”
Dwayne Smith, a Board of Education member, erupted in anger during the board’s March meeting. Smith demanded to know why the schools and the system’s central office were not further along in receiving money for repairs. Smith said he wanted to hear from the school’s insurance company at the next meeting. No insurance representative attended the April board meeting.
“I am appalled that we do not have an insurance person down here,” Smith said.
Erica Setzer, chief financial officer for the school system, and Hugh McIllwain, director of internal affairs and finance, have explained that the process is moving forward but the pace is slow.
An engineering firm in Pembroke, LL&J, has been contracted to conduct scope-of-work estimates on damaged buildings. Once the estimates are completed they will be submitted to the district’s insurance company. After that any outstanding damage claim would be submitted to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. After the FEMA claim is completed, any unmet need can be submitted to the state.
“We are stuck at insurance,” Setzer said. “We can’t get insurance to make a decision until the scope-of-work is done. Then we will go to FEMA.”
Though smaller amounts of funding have been received from FEMA, none are for rebuilding the W.H. Knuckles cafeteria or the school system’s central office, which was destroyed by flooding. The school board is still trying to decide where to local the central office.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly. Staff writer Scott Bigelow contributed to this report. He can be reached at email@example.com.