Schools try to get handle on use of FEMA dollars

By: By Bob Shiles -

LUMBERTON — Members of the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education on Tuesday gave school administrators the go-ahead to give the Federal Emergency Management Agency notification that they want to use the agency’s “Alternative Procedures” method for receiving funds to use toward central office building and West Lumberton Elementary School projects.

“This will give us the biggest bang for our buck,” said Hugh McIlwain, the school district’s internal auditor.

McIlwain said that under this funding mechanism the district will receive a lump sum, including mitigation money, that can be moved another project, such as changing the location of where they plan to locate the central office, if they decide to do so down the road.

McIlwain said that the school district must let FEMA know of its plans to use this means of funding for its long-range recovery projects by one year of the date that Hurricane Matthew was declared a disaster. Hurricane Matthew swept through Robeson County on Oct. 8 of last year.

The board also voted unanimously to authorize Superintendent Shanita Wooten to solicit and accept architectural plans for a future central office.

Tuesday’s meeting, held in the council chambers of Lumberton City Hall, was a special called session of the board to identify and discuss the district’s construction needs and in what order these needs should be addressed. The board also met in closed session to discuss personnel issues and student transfers.

Randy Lawson, chairman of the board’s Construction Committee, told board members that FEMA wants to see the district’s long-range plans in writing before money will be released to support projects eligible for FEMA funding.

“They want to see our plan in writing,” he said. “Maybe we can get some money to come in so that we will not be caught in a boat without a paddle.”

The board for about 45 minutes tossed ideas out about possible plans for the central office, West Lumberton Elementary School, the district’s bus garage, Child Nutrition facilities and planetarium. The most significant difference among board members was where any new construction should take place and what existing facilities could be renovated and utilized to meet present and future school district use.

Lawson said that he has been in contact with some members of the Robeson County Board of Commissioners and they have indicated they would be willing to sell the schools some county property to relocate displaced central office employees.

Board member Dwayne Smith agreed that the county offer may be a temporary solution, noting that the lease the district currently has with Native Angels at COMtech Park expires on June 30.

Board members Craig Lowry and Brenda Fairley-Ferebee spoke in favor of building a new central office.

“Something temporary can turn into five or 10 years,” Lowry said.

Ferebee’s objections to the downtown Lumberton property that the school board may be able to acquire is that there is not enough parking space.

Mike Smith, the board’s Finance Committee chairman, said that at the present time it is to the school district’s advantage to send clear message to FEMA about what the district’s general overall plans are with regard to FEMA money.

“I think we need a clear direction,” he said. “Are we going to take the money or not? We can discuss our possibilities with the county later.”

Hugh McIlwain McIlwain

By Bob Shiles

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.

Bob Shiles can be reached at 910-416-5165.