LUMBERTON — Frustrations at a perceived lack of progress with Hurricane Matthew rebuilding efforts boiled over Tuesday as board member Dwayne Smith angrily demanded action at the Board of Education’s monthly meeting.
“Three months, six months, 10 years, five years. I mean, we are spinning our wheels because every board meeting it’s papers, money, DMS, FEMA. It’s driving me … I want to …. I’m not even going to tell you what I want to do. But it doesn’t make sense,” Smith said while detailing his frustrations after a protracted discussion and presentation regarding the system’s various insurance claims and engineering projects.
The Public Schools of Robeson County lost its central office to the Oct. 8 storm and West Lumberton Elementary, W.H. Knuckles Elementary and the bus depot, all which were devastated, are situated in the flood zone.
Smith let his thoughts be known after the board discussed options for bringing its warehouse on U.S. 74 to code. The board later voted to spend $170,000 on a firewall between the office space in the warehouse and the storage facility.
“I don’t mean to offend anybody but I want answers tonight on when we are going to get money so we can pursue something,” Smith said to Hugh McIlwain, director of internal affairs and finance for the district and project engineers, all of whom stood at the podium answering questions.
McIlwain, who has been the point man on physical recovery efforts, echoed Smith’s frustrations with the complexities of the reimbursement process that involves insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and an ongoing pursuit of state funds.
“It’s like go check the schools out, go do this, go check this out. I’m tired of checking the schools out. If you can’t look up and see what’s going on: I want money to get our county up and going,” Smith said. “And we are not getting it from the state, from FEMA, from DMS, and I’m sorry, but nobody’s not telling us nothing. I want answers right now.”
“Good luck,” McIlwain said. “I’ve asked the same questions.”
Chief Finance Officer Erica Setzer tried to offer perspective and a step-by-step guide to how the district gets the money from the different agencies, but Smith cut her off when she mentioned filling out worksheets for project descriptions.
“I’m worksheeted to death,” Smith said. “I want an answer and I want it tonight … Our county has got to move forward and you can’t move forward without money. I’ll tell them what they can do with a worksheet.”
The district has recently signed contracts with local engineering firm LL&J to conduct scope-of-work estimates on damaged buildings. Once those are completed they will be submitted to the district’s insurance company. After that any outstanding damage claim would be submitted to FEMA. 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.”
“How long is all this going to take?” Smith said.
“That’s a very good question,” Setzer said.
The system has received reimbursements from FEMA and the Environmental Protection Agency related to the loss of vehicles during the storm and the cleaning up of a fuel spill.
The discussion shifted back to the warehouse being used by several departments on U.S. 74. Board member Craig Lowery and others suggested that location would be ideal to build a central office and to house other district buildings.
“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 my opinion, that would be a good area and we already have a start.”
Smith called on representatives of all the agencies involved to come to the next board meeting.
“And I’m not talking about the one that answers the phones, I’m talking about the big dogs,” Smith said. “They need to be here next board meeting so they can get chewed on a little bit, so we can get some actions. We need the higher-ups with the insurance company … we need them here and they need to get ready.”
The board also extended its lease at Native Angels at COMtech near Pembroke, which is where central office has been working, through July 2018. The $9,000 a month is expected to be reimbursed by FEMA.
The board decided to send a letter to the county Board of Commissioners expressing interest in three Elm Street buildings the county might vacate when it moves administrative and other offices in the old BB&T building.
In other business:
— Buddy McLean of the accounting firm of S. Preston and Douglas gave the school district’s financial books top marks as the audit was accepted with no reportable issues and increased fund balances in all accounts.
“This is probably the best year the district has had with compliance,” McLean said. “I’m very proud of the compliance for this year.”
The audit covers the financial year ending June 30, 2016.
— They system has been awarded a $302,000 N.C. Quest Grant, which will be used to promote literacy. The grant was applied for in cooperation with The University of North Carolina at Pembroke.
— Teachers hired for the 2017-2018 school year in areas of critical need will be given a $1,000 sign-on bonus by the district. These areas are early childhood education, mathematics, K6 and school psychologists. The school system currently has 68 vacancies with 40 more expected through resignations and retirements by the end of the current school year.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly