LUMBERTON — An award of $2.7 million is a good start toward getting the Public Schools of Robeson County facilities back to their pre-Hurricane Matthew state.
After Hurricane Matthew struck North Carolina in October, state lawmakers allocated $25 million in relief funding and asked Golden LEAF Foundation to administer it. The foundation approved $3.5 million recently for projects in Robeson County. The Public Schools of Robeson County received $2.7 million for six projects to return damaged facilities to the state they were in before the storm. Most of the money will go toward reimbursing the district for work already completed.
“We are very grateful to receive these funds,” said Craig Lowery, a member of the school board. “I think it is the largest allocation of funds we have had from them. It helps us replenish a lot of the monies we have spent.”
Lowry also appreciates getting money to pay the district’s $1 million insurance deductible. West Lumberton Elementary School and the district’s central office, which were damaged by floodwaters, each had $500,000 deductibles. Payment of the deductibles means the district will have access to money for rebuilding efforts.
The central office will have to be relocated because it cannot be rebuilt in the flood zone in which it now sits.
Many central office functions are now housed at the Native Angels facility at COMtech near Pembroke. The district’s lease for space at the facility expires in July 2018. The $9,000-a-month rent is expected to be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“I don’t really know, but I hope we can look at something where we can get everything together in one location,” Lowry said. “It is too early to say right now.”
Board members have expressed repeatedly the desire to have the central office, the transportation department, warehouse and nutritional services in one location. In March it was suggested that site be where the district’s maintenance warehouse is located on U.S. 74. The warehouse now is being used for office space, storage and its normal maintenance duties.
Almost half of the total Golden LEAF allotment, $1.28 million, is for work undertaken to improve the warehouse facility. The Transportation Department received $145,216.25.
“The funds for the U.S. 74 warehouse and the Transportation Department have already been spent completing necessary repairs and renovations that were a direct result of Hurricane Matthew,” said Erica Setzer, the district’s chief financial officer.
In March the board voted unanimously to spend $170,000 bringing the warehouse up to building code. A firewall between the office space and the storage facility was built.
Board member Steve Martin said he hopes the board will spend money on a permanent home for the district, rather than a quick, short-term fix.
“That land is in an industrial park in the county. It is good land, easily accessible for the entire county,” board member Brenda Fairly-Ferebee said in March. “In my opinion, that would be a good area and we already have a start.”
The BB&T building in downtown Lumberton was considered by the board as a central office site when county commissioners considered handing it over. However, that idea was not popular among county commissioners.
The commissioners have hired an architectural firm to draw up plans for renovating the facility so it eventually can house the Tax Office, Register of Deeds, county manager’s office, computer operations, the Finance and Human Resources departments, the county attorney, and Veterans Services.
Three other buildings currently used by county government have been proposed as school district offices. The three Elm Street buildings would become available if the county moved into a refurbished BB&T building. Martin has suggested offering to buy the buildings at their current property tax valuations, about $2.1 million.
Other projects funded by Golden LEAF’s grant are the refurbishing of W.H. Knuckles Elementary School.
The cafeteria and kitchens at W.H. Knuckles were destroyed by floodwaters. As a result students had to eat lunch in the school gymnasium. All meals for students were prepared at another school and delivered to W.H. Knuckles.
Golden LEAF funds in the amount of $265,800 helped refund the district for restoration projects completed in the school and cafeteria. The district has said the cafeteria and kitchen will be operational at the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
The Golden LEAF Foundation was formed by the state General Assembly to provide assistance to poor or tobacco-dependent regions of North Carolina where local economies were damaged by the tobacco buyout.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly