LUMBERTON — The state’s public education leader toured three storm-damaged sites in West Lumberton on Thursday and lauded the recovery efforts of local educators and their students.
State Superintendent Mark Johnson met with teachers, pupils and administrators at Lumberton Junior High School. He also toured West Lumberton Elementary, which suffered significant damage and still has not reopened, and the Public Schools of Robeson County’s central office, which were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew.
Flood damage forced West Lumberton Elementary students to move into classrooms at the junior high. It is still being determined if West Lumberton Elementary can ever be used again.
Johnson had high praise for the schools working together and the teachers and staff involved.
“It’s so important to the kids to have a sense of getting back to normal,” Johnson said. “(The elementary school) moving in, the junior high saying ‘take this space, let’s make it work,’ the space being available really was very fortunate. Those students are just happy and engaged, and it’s so important for them to have that sense, a little bit of back to normal. They’ve done an amazing job here.”
County schools, athletics fields and other academic property suffered extensive damage during the October storm and subsequent flooding. In addition to the total loss of the system’s central office and the damage at West Lumberton Elementary, several other schools lost buildings and more than $2 million in vehicles. The school district is employing engineers to assess the scope of work needed to rebuild and repair facilities before claims are sent to insurance companies, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state authorities.
Interim Superintendent Shanita Wooten, Loistine DeFreece, chairman of the Board of Education, and West Lumberton Elementary School Principal Tara Bullard accompanied Johnson as he discussed storm damage, the housing of the elementary students at the junior high and what the future holds for students and staff members affected by the storm.
“We have tremendous needs in the district following the hurricane. That devastation is still very visible almost six months after Hurricane Matthew,” Wooten said. “The FEMA process is complex, however we are moving forward. Our students are our top priority. All decisions are made with our students needs in mind.”
The group talked about Hurricane Matthew’s effect with students and watched them work in their classrooms.
“I’m amazed by the resilience that this community has shown,” Johnson said. “We listened to the personal stories of the school leaders having to wade through chest-deep water in the middle of the night. Being from the Raleigh area, we see the homes and the water on TV, but you have to connect that. Each of those homes is a personal story. That’s the school leaders, that’s the principals, that’s the teachers, that’s the students. All of them are going through this and for them to carry that with them through to school, it makes it so important to be a welcoming environment and to bring a sense of community again, and they have done such an amazing job with that.”
Wooten and Johnson discussed the recovery effort and the role the Federal Emergency Management Agency has played so far.
“We are enthusiastic that Superintendent Johnson took an interest in the Public Schools of Robeson County and took the time to visit,” Wooten said. “We are hopeful he will take our needs and message back to the N.C. Department of Education and the lawmakers in the N.C. General Assembly.”
Johnson was elected to his post in 2016. He taught at West Charlotte High School before attending law school at the University of North Carolina.
Reach Mike Gellatly at 910-816-1989 or via Twitter @MikeGellatly