County chairman turns down invitation to school office meeting

Published 12:00 am Saturday, December 22, 2012

SALISBURY — The chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners says he won’t call for a special meeting to join central office discussions with the school board.
In an email Thursday to new school board Chairman Richard Miller, county Chairman Jim Sides said a majority of commissioners could still decide to call the meeting themselves.
“Even without a special meeting, any of the commissioners may attend your meeting, as long as there is not a majority present to participate in the discussions with your board,” he wrote.
On Tuesday, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education set a meeting on the topic for 5 p.m. on Jan. 3 in the school system’s Long Street office.
New school board chairman Richard Miller then sent an email to commissioners inviting them to the “central office stakeholders meeting,” which will include Salisbury City Council.
Miller also wrote that the school board would like to hold a separate meeting with commissioners “to discuss how to develop a mutually beneficial working relationship between the two elected Boards.”
Sides replied Thursday to decline the invitation.
Sides referred to Miller’s recent statement, reported in the Post, about the county’s fund balance and commissioners’ ability to fund the $6 million to $8 million building project without a loan.
“I take this as a very irresponsible statement on your part,” Sides wrote Miller, adding that the state mandates all counties have a fund balance and Rowan has worked hard to keep its healthy. “Rest assured, Rowan County will not be writing the School Board a check for either of the amounts you referenced and thereby depleting its fund balance to an unacceptable level.”
The school board submitted its final plans to the county on Dec. 3, asking that commissioners request permission from the Local Government Commission to borrow $6 million on their behalf. But the county board voted 3-2 to delay a decision for 60 days, with Commissioners Jon Barber and Chad Mitchell in disagreement.
Sides said Friday that during that vote, a majority of commissioners also requested a meeting with the school board — and only the school board. The meeting would be open to the public, but no one else would participate.
“We felt like the school board needed to meet to determine how to proceed from that point forward, and to determine whether the project was going to proceed at all,” Sides said. “We did not feel like we needed any outside influence and interference from any other parties.”
He said he considers Salisbury city government, Downtown Salisbury Inc. and downtown business owners to be “special interest groups,” not stakeholders. The school and county boards are the only stakeholders in locating an administrative office, he said, as defined by the state legislature.
Sides’ email to Miller went into detail.
“This should be considered a 50/50 partnership, where statutory authority for deciding ‘need’ and ‘location’ are negotiated,” Sides wrote. “Once these two issues are resolved, then the project becomes the school board’s responsibility and they are free to ‘direct and drive it,’ as you were also quoted by the Salisbury Post.”
Miller said he doesn’t think there is such a definition of stakeholders in the law.
“It seems to me by any stretch of a definition, by (Salisbury’s) actions they’ve established themselves as a stakeholder,” he said.
The city is donating land and a parking lot, each worth roughly $250,000, said Salisbury City Manager Doug Paris. It is also investing time and money into preparing the downtown site, including cleanup of petroleum contamination.
“Now council has directed staff to look at joint financial scenarios in order to make a full office financially feasible,” Paris said. “We are a stakeholder. That is evidence of stakeholder-ness.”
Sides said this month that the proposed 48,000-square-foot building is too small to offer true consolidation. The school board had downsized its plans to fit commissioners’ $6 million budget, with the final estimates still coming in slightly above it at $6.3 million.
Salisbury Mayor Paul Woodson said he has been working with Paris to find the money — about $2 million more — to help the school system build its original design of 62,000 square feet.
In a January 2012 meeting, when the county set its $6 million budget for the project, Sides said he wasn’t convinced that the schools needed that space.
“I do not measure need based on the desire for a 62,000-square-foot building to house 167 employees,” he said at the time, adding that the county has more than 190 employees in 45,500 square feet.
On Friday, he said it would be foolish for the county to finance an office building that isn’t big enough for the entire school administration, which currently works out of five separate offices.
“If it proceeds, it should be large enough to house everybody,” he said. “But I didn’t say it should proceed.”
He said he doesn’t want the school board to take money from its capital expense fund, which should be used for current building needs at the schools, to pay for any of the administration building costs.
His email gave Miller a stern warning:
“I would caution you that the School Board does not have the authority to convert any part of the current expense fund balance to this capital project without express approval of the Board of Commissioners. There is little probability of that happening.
“While you do have authority to use any part of your capital expense fund on any project you see fit, I would caution you that for every dollar you remove from this fund for the school central office project, you will effectively remove one dollar from needed capital projects at the many school facilities under your care.”
Sides said Friday that, in his opinion as an individual commissioner, the school board should wait on the project until 2016, when it retires significant bond debt and has more money available.
Woodson said he hopes the commissioners either will decide to call a special meeting or at least attend on Jan. 3.
“We really want the county commissioners to come,” Woodson said. “We’d like to have the school board, county commissioners, school staff and the Salisbury City Council to be there, so we can get a unified team together and get this project done.”
In an email to a Post reporter, Jon Barber said he plans to be there, but he won’t join in the discussion.
“I will attend the January 3rd meeting, listen to the solution that is discussed and developed by the Board of Education and City Council, and will take this solution back for consideration and approval by the County Commission at our January 7th meeting,” Barber wrote.
Commissioner Mike Caskey said he agrees with Sides’ decision, and it’s up to the others to choose whether they want to participate in the meeting or not.
“I don’t mind talking to Salisbury, but I think we need to talk to the school board first,” Caskey said. “The school board and commissioners are the only ones statutorially that have to make that decision.”
Chad Mitchell and Vice Chairman Craig Pierce did not return calls for comment Friday.
Sides said he still looks forward to a meeting between just the commissioners and the school board.
Miller said he would welcome that, but the first meeting between the two should be about finding common ground and building a working relationship.
“It won’t matter what the topic is,” he said, “if we don’t have a relationship among the various governing bodies.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.