School board, county will continue their joint meeting

SALISBURY — County commissioners and school board members will resume their joint meeting on Thursday at 6 p.m.

The two boards will meet on the second floor of the J. Newton Cohen Sr. Rowan County Administration Building, 130 W. Innes St. in Salisbury.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners met jointly with the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education at 5 p.m. Monday. After finishing their presentations in open session around 8:30 p.m., the full boards voted to enter closed session.

Around 2 a.m. Tuesday, they called a recess until Thursday at 6 p.m.

The school board and county commissioners are meeting for mediation purposes in an effort to resolve funding disputes, according to North Carolina General Statute 115C-431.

The school board says it needs $4.7 million in current expense funds and another $3.9 million in capital outlay, for a total increase of $8.6 million.

But when county commissioners passed their 2013-14 budget in June, they approved no increase in capital funding and a decrease of $225,000 based on a projected drop in enrollment.

Jim Sides, chairman of the Board of Commissioners, said the two boards will likely continue meeting in closed session on Thursday, but he doesn’t think they should.

“I wish it was all being done in the open,” Sides said Tuesday. “I haven’t seen one thing that’s gone on in closed session that, in my opinion, could not have been stated in open session, and I feel like it should have.”

School Board Chairman Richard Miller said he would defer to the opinion of Richard Schwartz and Brian Shaw, attorneys hired by the school board for the budget dispute.

They say that attorney-client privilege applies in this case.

“There is constant advice back and forth from the attorneys,” Schwartz said. “The end result of this if it’s not successful is litigation.”

The boards entered closed session to discuss potential litigation and confidential matters, he said, which are both named by statute as closed session topics.

“It’s more common to split into working groups,” Schwartz said. “In this instance, everybody thought we might be able to make more progress by keeping the full boards engaged.”

According to state statute, those working groups meet in private mediation sessions and include board’s chairman, finance officer and attorney, along with the school superintendent and county manager. But the law also says the two boards can name different groups.

Willis Whichard, who was chosen as the mediator by the attorneys of both boards, is a lawyer who has served as an N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice and an N.C. Court of Appeals Judge.

He said he had no problem moving forward with the boards in closed session instead of working groups, because it seemed more likely to lead to an agreement.

“My job is to try to move them toward resolution,” Whichard said. “The exact details of how we do that is really for the boards and attorneys.”

Any final agreements must be approved in open session by both boards.

County Attorney Jay Dees didn’t return calls for comment Tuesday.

Miller said he still can’t predict what will come out of the mediation.

“I think we’ve still got some time to see if the process will help and create some dialog that’s beneficial to our 20,000 students,” Miller said. “We’ll give it our best shot to make it work for the kids.”

Sides said he’s not sure anymore whether the mediation process will end in an agreement or a lawsuit.

“My first inclination was that there was no way we were going to come to a resolution, and that this was going to go to court,” Sides said. “But there have been some fairly substantial offers made that, if I were in the school board’s shoes, I’d find hard to turn down.”

At Monday’s meeting, Vice Chairman Craig Pierce proposed that the county borrow $30 million to give to the schools up front for capital needs.

Most of that would fund a new elementary school for western Rowan County (Woodleaf and Cleveland), and the remaining money could be used for any other capital needs except for buying land and constructing new buildings.

When the school board’s current bond debt expires, it would begin making loan repayments.

Miller said he hasn’t had the chance to look at Pierce’s proposal in-depth.

“I’m certainly open to considering anything that helps deal with some of these issues and doesn’t take away from others,” Miller said.

Sides said he’s not in favor of the idea right now.

“We don’t have any money available to us to make the debt service payments,” he said. “For $30 million over 10 years, that’s $3 million per year. Over 15 years, that’s probably $2.4 million or $2.5 million.”

Sides said he understand Pierce’s reasoning that the county should borrow while interest rates and building costs are low, but for such a big project, it makes more sense to wait.

The 1993 school bonds will be paid off in 2016, freeing up $2.5 million per year for debt service, Sides said.

“At that point in time, possibly the economy will pick up a little bit, and there might be another $500,000 to $700,000 we could put into the pot to make debt service payments. I don’t know,” Sides said. “But the problem is not in capital expense. The problem is in current expense.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.



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