LUMBERTON — Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education members voted to take steps toward securing funding for the project to build a new career center science, technology and planetarium facility.
In 2020, the school district received a $15 million grant from the state’s Needs-Based Public School Capital Fund to construct a career and technology center. The facility was estimated to cost $82.3 million. Grady Hunt, the School Board’s attorney, said an estimate for the new center is not yet available.
The school district also received $5 million from the North Carolina state budget approved in 2021 to fund the construction of a new planetarium, which will now be included in the career center building.
School board members approved Tuesday moving forward in applying for a $35 million needs-based grant to move the project forward. If the funding is awarded, the district would have about $55 million toward the effort.
Board members approved allowing SfL+a Architects, of Raleigh, to assist with the application for the grant. Also approved was the new career center, science, technology and planetarium facility. Board members then approved sending out requests for qualifications for architects to design the facility.
In other matters, board members discussed varying options to allow members of the public to participate more in meetings via the public comments section. However, no action was taken. Currently, comments are submitted online by the public, accepted into the minutes and posted on the PSRC website.
Among options discussed were allowing members of the public who wished to comment to do so in person, call in, or participate in a separate virtual meeting.
Hunt said meetings have been closed for safety reasons including for social distancing and health concerns related to COVID.
Hunt said he was unsure of allowing certain members of the public in and not others “because when you open it up, you open it up to everybody who wants to attend,” he said.
“I don’t know how you do that and do that safely and responsibly in this environment,” he said of allowing the public to attend meetings in person.
School Board member Terry Locklear volunteered to read comments aloud.
However School Board members including Brenda Fairly-Ferebee and Linda Emanuel said they were uncomfortable with the idea.
During the week of Jan. 3-6, there were 1,200 exposures and 294 positive cases in PSRC students, said Bobby Locklear, assistant superintendent of Auxiliary Services.
“These numbers are very comparable to what we were seeing late August,” he said.
Some School Board members spoke of staffing issues and teachers who must manage two classrooms.
Board member Vonta Leach said multiple schools have reported 20 or more staff members who did not report to work.
“All of this together is burning everybody out,” Leach said.
PSRC Superintendent Freddie Williamson said the district is facing staffing shortages. He also said some teachers are refusing to take COVID-19 tests, thus the five-day quarantine period after an exposure automatically extends to a 10-day period.
Williamson said virtual learning is off the table because of legislation that stipulates children must be in school unless an emergency situation occurs in which a school must be shut down.
School Board Chairman Mike Smith asked Williamson for a daily number of teachers who are out of work so board members can keep track.
“Everything we’ve talked about [related to COVID] tonight are variables out of everybody’s control … and over time those variables will be smaller,” Williamson said.
School district leaders are bound by policies and procedures for their actions, he said.
Some School Board members expressed concern in regards to time and effort put into contact tracing of COVID cases and exposures by teachers.
“The tracking part is what’s taking away from the teaching,” Board member Dwayne Smith said. “This is what is wearing our staff out.”
“That’s been the issue that I’ve heard more than anything,” said Craig Lowry, a board member.
Superintendent Freddie Williamson said that seating charts help tremendously during the contact tracing process and should make the process less difficult.
School Board members asked about hiring people to focus on contact tracing to alleviate the strain from responsibilities.
The school district has had posted positions for certified nursing assistants to fill that role, according to officials.
Melissa Thompson, assistant superintendent of Human Resources, said there were about 52 CNAs needed.
There have been about six nurse positions open as well, said Erica Setzer, chief Finance officer.
Thompson said she has not been able to find people to fill the roles.
Mobile health unit
PSRC School Board members also heard from Robeson Health Care Corporation leaders who informed them of their purchase of a mobile heath unit. The bus will have onboard a certified clinical counselor, licensed practical nurse and a behavioral specialist to serve schools and communities that are not close to RHCC facilities.
The bus contains two full exam rooms and a place for private counseling, according to Jennifer McLamb, RHCC’s COO. Staff members will provide acute care.
The effort seeks to reduce student absences because of sick days, assist in vaccinating students and to improve health in Robeson County starting with children, she said.
The bus will be parked at Littlefield Middle, Magnolia Elementary, Rex-Rennert Elementary and Orrum Middle schools for full days. It will also rotate between Long Branch and Oxendine elementary schools. A timeline for the unit’s deployment to schools was not provided during the presentation.
“If we need more units, we will purchase more units and we will put them to use,” said RHCC CEO Tim Hall.
Also during the meeting, Superintendent Williamson thanked School Board members for their work.
“January is school board member appreciation month,” he said.
Members exchanged words of gratitude to each other for their service.
“If there was anyway I could defer my appreciation for today, I would definitely like to defer it to those individuals [teachers] because they’re the ones on the front lines,” Terry Locklear said.
Board members also congratulated and honored Isaiah Stanley, an eighth grade math teacher at Lumberton Junior High School, for his designation as one of five winners of Rack Room Shoes’ nationwide Teacher of the Year Contest. The honor also came with a $10,000 technology grant previously presented to the school on behalf of Rack Room Shoes.
Reach Jessica Horne at 910-416-5165 or via email at [email protected]
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