LUMBERTON — The pursuit of about $89 million through an appeals process with the Federal Emergency Management Agency was approved Tuesday by the Public Schools of Robeson County Board of Education.
Board attorney Grady Hunt said outgoing Board Chairman Craig Lowry helped forge the decision to retain the Baker Donelson law firm out of Washington, D.C., to help PSRC in its appeal to FEMA.
FEMA denied the funding request from PSRC, but did offer the school district about $4.5 million in Hurricane Matthew recovery funding, Hunt said.
“We’re in a position where we do one of two things, take the $4.5 million and go away or appeal FEMA determinations, which is what we’re doing now,” Hunt said.
Weekly video conferences with State Emergency Management officials are taking place through the appeal process, Hunt said.
“We’re in it for the long haul. I don’t think we have a choice,” the attorney said.
The fee structure is $200 to $605 depending on which member of the D.C.-based law firm works on the case, and attorneys are about $350 to $605 per hour, Hunt said.
The decision to pursue the appeal was approved unanimously by School Board members.
“We have engaged ‘em (the firm) on our FEMA appeal, which is actually due Aug. 10,” Hunt said.
Hunt said the firm will provide specialized services. Baker Donelson employs Ernest Abbott, who served as former general counsel of FEMA, according to the firm’s website.
“Baker Donelson’s Disaster Recovery Team provides legal and regulatory advice, training and consulting services in the areas of disaster preparedness and recovery,” according to its website.
“Our experience includes comprehensive financial oversight, document management, compliance counsel, and policy and government relations services. These services are based on prior large-scale grant management experience involving billions in post-disaster Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funding that Baker Donelson team members helped manage across the nation, including successful collaborative response and recovery efforts in Louisiana, Tennessee, Texas, Mississippi, New York and New Jersey,” according to the firm’s website.
The school district implemented flood insurance as it was instructed to do after Hurricane Matthew, which could prove helpful if another hurricane wreaks havoc in the county or on school properties, said Erica Setzer, PSRC’s chief Finance officer.
In other matters, Superintendent Freddie Williamson said administrators are updating the current reentry plan and is monitoring the COVID-19 Delta variant. A more in-depth conversation will take place in August about the decision.
During Tuesday’s meeting, members approved naming Mike Smith chairman of the School Board and Brenda Fairley-Ferebee as vice chair. John Simmons also was nominated for the vice chair position, but lost to Fairley-Ferebee by one vote.
Former School Board Chairman Craig Lowry thanked board members and Williamson for help in navigating the pandemic. He said virtual learning was one of the most challenging elements of the school year.
“We don’t know what we’re going to deal with this coming year,” Lowry said.
Smith, who has served on the School Board for 32, years, also shared a message as he assumed the chairman’s role.
“First of all, I commend Mr. Lowry for the job he did do during this pandemic,” Smith said.
He said the board worked together and kept their “eye on the end goal” of education.
In other matters, Board member Terry Locklear asked Policy Committee Chairman William Gentry to consider drafting a policy for a chair-elect position to help make the “transition smoother” for the board chair position.
Also on Tuesday, Chairman Smith said people who wish to can speak for three minutes in person at the August meeting. Interested members of the public can sign up to speak before the meeting. The August meeting is open to the public.
Board members also heard from Loury Floyd, dean of the School of Education at The University of North Carolina at Pembroke, who gave a quarterly update on partnerships between UNCP and the Public Schools of Robeson County.
“We find the majority of our graduates are employed here or seek employment with this particular district,” Floyd said.
There are 660 UNCP alumni working for PSRC, she said. There are 185 residency licensure candidates enrolled in Educator Preparation programs and working for the school district.
Setzer said the school district is expanding its program to help teacher assistants pay for training for teacher certification.
The school system is entering its third year in the program that gives teacher assistants selected by Human Resources during an application process $4,500 to $4,600 to help pay for training, she said. State funding will allow the school system to help five more teacher assistants in their training.
Floyd invited PSRC officials to attend mental health first aid training for free on Aug. 13.
Lowry said the more staff the district receives from the university, the fewer candidates it will have to recruit from elsewhere. He asked that the university continue its efforts to provide staff, and increase the number if possible.
Floyd also said the university is partnering with PSRC and Scotland County in applying for a $400,000 grant from Branch Alliance for Educator Diversity, which will help minority-serving institutions to “implement sustainable, inclusive, high-quality educator preparation programming” to positively impact minority students.
In other business, Robeson Community College officials asked administrators to support Career and College Promise Continuing Education programs such as firefighting and law enforcement, among other courses.
“I’m going to be honest with you, this is really a plead for help,” said Steven Hunt, vice president of Workforce Development and Continuing Education at the college.
Hunt said students are needed to fill the programs and take on those positions in the workforce.
“We really need to push this at our local schools,” Lowry said.
He said the number of PSRC students in the program this past year was “extremely low.”
College President Melissa Singler said professional development is also available for PSRC personnel.
School Board member Henry Brewer said maintenance workers can look into that training.
“I’m overwhelmed today,” Singler said. “Think for a second, the big three are in this room, PSRC, UNCP and Robeson Community College. There is nothing that together we cannot accomplish for every student.”
Jennifer Freeman, assistant superintendent, said two social workers have been hired over the summer to help serve homeless students. The school system averages about 170 students, but served about 77 through COVID-19.
Freeman said a federal McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act liaison will be employed to help PSRC better serve those students.
“These students have many layers of needs, as all of our students do,” Freeman said. “But, then you add more and more to these students when they’re homeless.”
Federal funding will be used to pay for English Learner Teachers to serve the 1,926 current English Learner students, she said. The current ratio is one teacher to 150 students. The hired positions will reduce the ratio to one to 70.
Also approved Tuesday were Exceptional Children Services contracts, transportation contracts and budget amendments.
School Board members also observed a moment of silence for Lumberton Senior High School graduate Matthew Sessoms, who died in a car crash Monday, according to Craig Lowry.
Col. Greg Williamson, senior Army instructor at Lumberton High School, told the Board of Education that the JROTC Camp Robeson program was successful. During the program, cadets from St. Pauls, Red Springs, Fairmont, Lumberton…