Local News

Rural NC school districts grapple with campus closures as students go elsewhere

Posted August 30, 2019 6:40 p.m. EDT
Updated August 30, 2019 6:45 p.m. EDT

For schools across the Triangle, the challenge has long been to keep up with rapid student population growth.

Wake County, for example, is always building new schools and expanding existing ones.

But the story is much different in the state's rural counties.

Robeson County closed five schools this summer.

At Janie C. Hargrave Elementary in Lumberton, the windows are dim and the school marquee is blank.

Hector Miray and his three school-age daughters live right across the street.

"One of their favorite things is they could literally just get up, walk across the street, and we could be waiting for them in the driveway when they came home," he said.

But now, getting to school is measured in miles, not footsteps.

This summer, the Robeson County Board of Education voted to shut down Hargrave and four others in order to close a $2 million operating deficit. The superintendent cited declining enrollment and damage from two hurricanes in two years.

At Rowland Middle School, it's the same silent scene: empty lot, faded look.

Just up a country road, South Robeson High School is no longer a high school -- never mind the signs.

It's a middle school now, with the 450 high schoolers farmed out to three other campuses.

"If we're in a deficit and we're the smallest school and it's easy to merge with another one, it makes mathematical sense but that doesn't make it any less painful," Miray said

More than 150 miles north, in Granville County, another largely rural county, two schools sit idle this year.

Assistant Superintendent Stan Winborne told WRAL News earlier this year that charter schools were siphoning away students from the public schools.

While he said he's not opposed to the charter phenomenon, money follows the students.

"It was very, very difficult," Winborne said previously about closing schools, adding that it is one of the most difficult decisions a school board can make.

In Warren County, in Vance County and in other counties with slow -- or no -- population growth, it's a hard lesson: merge schools or keep running them in the red.

In some cases -- as with the now-closed South Warren Elementary -- the building is in such disrepair, administrators deemed it too expensive to fix.

Back in Lumberton, Tommy Britt laments the loss of Hargrave Elementary.

"I was born and raised here," he said. "I went to school here eight years (and) my children went to school here. It's been a real good neighborhood school (and) we've never had any trouble or anything."

But the place where generations of children came to grow now only grows weeds.

Robeson County school leaders said increases in state salary and benefits requirements also put a strain on budgets for rural districts. They say while difficult, the closure of five schools is in the best interest of all students.