Elizabeth Cook: Mediation results mixed, short-lived

  • Posted: Sunday, June 30, 2013 12:30 a.m.

It’s easy to see how teachers and administrators and even school boards could develop a victim mentality. The legislature makes the big budget decisions and has an endless capacity to micromanage policy. Meanwhile, local funding is controlled by county commissioners, not the school board.

But school boards do not have to settle for whatever they can get. State law allows them to sue county boards of commissioners over funding. Since 1997, that law has also included an optional, pre-litigation step of mediation to avoid a lawsuit.

That’s where the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners are — headed into mediation, with a meeting scheduled Monday.

At issue is whether local funding is “sufficient to support a system of free public schools.” The school board watched commissioners cut the schools’ budget by $225,000, ignoring a requested increase of $4.6 million.

How has this played out in other counties? A report compiled for the School of Government in Chapel Hill looked at three mediation cases from 2004 and found these results:

The Iredell-Statesville Board of Education mounted a challenge when county commissioners approved a 2 percent increase in school funds, rather than the customary 5 percent, for the 2004-05 school year.

Mediator Richard Tyndall, a local attorney, led them through 14 hours of mediation over two weeks. In the end, the schools did not get additional funding, but “both sides remained optimistic about a productive working relationship in the future,” says the report. And they signed a mediation agreement to form a Joint Facilities Task Force.

Follow up: Iredell commissioners put a bond issue on the 2005 ballot, and $230 million has been spent on school capital projects over the last 10 years, according to reports in the Statesville Record & Landmark. So mediation helped — for a while.

The system says it needs another $250 million for buildings in the next decade, and the school board and commissioners are again at odds. Iredell commissioners recently OK’d a $582,000 increase to be split between Iredell-Statesville schools and the Mooresville Graded School District, both of which had asked for millions more.

As if to prove that mediation was long forgotten, commission Chair Steve Johnson said the state budgets he has seen will actually increase funding for education and the “hand-wringers” who claim otherwise are spouting “a word synonymous with bovine organic fertilizer.”

The Moore County Board of Education challenged a 2004-05 county budget that increased funding to the schools by only 2 percent — $358,000 — compared to the requested 10 percent, or $2.1 million. Retired Judge Rick Greeson acted as mediator, and the two boards went through 25 hours of mediation. Once again, the county did not allocate additional funds as a result, but — success — commissioners did put a bond referendum on the fall ballot for school construction.

Follow up: This year Moore County gave the schools a $375,000 increase, half of what the schools had requested for a technology initiative, according to The Pilot of Southern Pines. The county manager — new on the job and not part of the mediation nine years ago — said the schools were “somewhat over-funded,” an apparent reference to the system’s fund balance.

The Cabarrus County Board of Education faced an uncomfortable situation going into the 2004-05 budget process. County commissioners formed a citizens’ committee to study school construction, independent of the school board. Then the county approved a budget with only a fraction of the construction funds the school board sought. The school board challenged the budget.

Charles Thompkins Jr., a Charlotte attorney, led one day of mediation. The day after the first session — again, with little or no involvement from the school board — the county announced a $98 million school bond referendum. Mediation ended after the next session, with Thompkins declaring an impasse.

Follow up: The school bond passed and, by 2007, the county was using lottery proceeds to help meet an $8.5 million funding shortfall on the projects.

This spring Cabarrus County Schools requested a $5.6 million increase in local funding for operating expenses and a $4.2 million increase in technology funding and got considerably less.

Many more counties have been through school budget mediation since 2004, but even this small sample shows the themes that run through all local school budget debates in North Carolina.

Stingy as they may seem, Rowan County commissioners have not cornered the market on skepticism about school budgets. Likewise, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is not alone in presenting commissioners with budget requests far larger than the county can fill.

Across the state, school boards and commissioners clash again and again. Some people call this a system of checks and balances. It looks more like a guaranteed path to irreconcilable differences.

Elizabeth Cook is editor of the Salisbury Post.

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