Joint meeting on school funding is first step in legal process

SALISBURY — County officials say they’re working to set up a joint meeting Monday with the school board to resolve a budget dispute.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners is already set to meet at 3 p.m. Monday. County Manager Gary Page said the joint meeting will likely be scheduled at either 1 p.m. or 4 p.m. the same day, but the time hasn’t been confirmed with school officials.

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education passed a resolution Tuesday to start a budget dispute and mediation process according to state statute.

“We knew they weren’t satisfied,” Page said. “But as far as them wanting to pursue mediation, I don’t think anyone expected that.”

School Board Chairman Richard Miller said this is the only venue the school has left to address its concerns with the Board of Commissioners’ education budget.

“The school board strongly believes that the amount of funding was inappropriate for adequate education,” Miller said.

The first step in the process is a public, joint meeting between the two boards, where the statute directs them to “make a good-faith attempt to resolve the differences that have arisen between them.”

This meeting is supposed to take place within seven days of the county’s decision.

If no agreement is reached, mediation will take place in private sessions with each board’s chairman, finance officer and attorney, along with the school superintendent and county manager. The mediator is named jointly by both boards or by the senior resident Superior Court judge.

If the two sides still can’t see eye-to-eye, the school board can file a lawsuit in Superior Court.

“We hope we don’t have to, but that is what the law affords,” Miller said.

The school board requested a $4.6 million increase for the county for operations, but on Monday, commissioners approved a $225,000 decrease. The cut is based on a projected enrollment drop of 140 students.

The county also chose not to fund any of the school board’s $24 million in capital needs this year. The school board receives about $1.5 million to $2 million in state tax revenue annually for capital expenses like construction and repairs.

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Commissioner Chad Mitchell, a teacher at East Rowan High School, said he understands the impact of recent state and federal cuts on the school system.

“As far as the entire $4.6 million request, I never thought the county could make up that kind of a loss in state and federal revenue,” Mitchell said. “Could we have done a little better? I don’t know.”

He said a key issue at the joint meeting will be figuring out what measure to use when coming to an agreement on school funding.

“I’ve come to believe that a per-pupil measure is not the best way to try to come to that magic number of funding,” Mitchell said.

Instead, he said he likes the idea of giving a certain percentage of the county’s total revenues to the school system. “I don’t see that we have to go into this meeting as enemies,” Mitchell said. “We all have a common goal, and that’s to fund the education system to the best of our ability. Hopefully, that ability covers what is needed to adequately perform the mission of the school system.”

Commissioner Jon Barber declined to comment on the issue Wednesday.

“Our attorney is still trying to understand the process and establish a date for the boards to get together,” Barber said.

In the commissioners’ budget discussions, Barber has unsuccessfully pushed for a $720,000 increase in current expense money for schools, along with $100,000 to go to its separately funded child nutrition program.

Commissioner Chairman Jim Sides, who has proposed more severe cuts to the school system, did not return calls for comment Wednesday.

According the University of North Carolina School of Government’s website, there have been between zero and five budget mediations per year since 1997, when N.C. General Statute 115C-431 was revised.

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It lists just one of those cases — Beaufort County in 2006 — as an unsuccessful mediation that led to legal action.

The local board of education had requested about $12.9 million, but the county only approved $9.4 million. In an N.C. Court of Appeals decision in February 2008, a jury awarded the school board $10.2 million.

In August 2009, the Supreme Court rejected Beaufort County’s argument that state law only holds counties responsible for funding capital expenses, not operating expenses.

Some Rowan County commissioners have used the same reasoning, saying the county cannot make up for lost state or federal funds.

But according to the court opinion in the Beaufort case, “the statutes explicitly contemplate the funding of current expenses by county commissioners when state funding is insufficient.”

Miller said the Board of Education is hoping for increased funding for both its capital and operational needs, and it believes the county can afford it.

The school system has made repeated cuts over the past few years, he said, and all that’s left to cut is personnel. In early June, the board approved 45 teacher layoffs, with the hopes of hiring them back as positions come open.

State budget proposals also threaten to cut funding for teacher assistants.

“Our 20,000 students are worth more than what the county has appropriated,” Miller said. “They are worth more than a $1.5 million airport hangar, and they are worth more than a salary increase for county employees.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.



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