School, county leaders don’t see eye to eye Efforts to improve relations fail as meeting lasts only 15 minutes

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 11, 2013

SALISBURY — A meeting meant to improve the relationship between the Rowan County Board of Commissioners and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education ended with the chairman of one board saying there is no relationship.

The meeting lasted only about 15 minutes after leaders failed to come to an agreement about whether the press should be allowed to attend.

County Commission Chairman Jim Sides wanted to meet behind closed doors with Vice Chairman Craig Pierce, school board Chairman Richard Miller, school board Vice Chairwoman Kay Wright Norman and others.

But Miller wanted the meeting to stay open.

The boards have disagreed publicly about the cost and location of a proposed new Rowan-Salisbury School System central office.

Sides said earlier this week he didn’t want to talk about the central office Thursday, but thought leaders of the two boards could “handle a lot of problems behind closed doors.”

Miller disagreed, as did the Post and its attorney, who said the two members from each board constituted committees and the meeting was subject to the state’s open meetings law.

Sides began Thursday with a scripture reading that referenced redemption, malice and forgiveness then said he wanted to clarify the meeting’s purpose.

He said he wanted to discuss the relationship between to two boards and how they will proceed in the future.

“This meeting is not about the central office. It’s not my intent to bring that subject up,” he said. “That subject will be addressed at a later date in an open forum, certainly in a very public meeting, and everybody who is involved will have an opportunity to speak.”

Sides said he also planned to go over the answers to a public information request made by Miller.

“Sometimes you gather information, put it on a piece of paper and it can be a stack this high and it can be hard to understand,” he said. “I want to make sure every question that was asked was answered and that proper detail was given to those questions.”

About a week ago, Miller requested copies of any agreements regarding the designation of county lottery funds, meeting minutes in which commissioners took action on the usage of the lottery funds and information about action taken by the county to fund the 2002 school bond from local property tax revenue.

Miller pointed out the 2002 bond campaign outlined a 6.5-cent property tax increase to fund the bond and asked how much had been levied.

“It is my understanding that this information has been requested during the past year with no response from your office,” Miller wrote.

Sides said Thursday that statement disturbed him.

“I don’t know who made the request. I don’t remember ever having seen it,” Sides said. “It is our policy to reply to all information requests in a timely manner, so at that point (County Manager) Gary Page and I had a discussion and I requested that he gather all the information that was requested.”

Page wrote in a letter to Miller that commissioners were scheduled to raise the property tax by at least 3 cents in 2005 to repay the 2002 bonds used to build new schools, but decided to use lottery funds instead.

The county had already increased the tax rate by 2.5 cents in 2004.

Page wrote he found no agreements between the school system and county regarding the use of lottery funds.

“In discussions with some of the commissioners during the years of 2005-2007, the general feeling was ‘why increase the tax rate if you didn’t have to’ for meeting debt service payments,” he wrote. “The question of lottery funds to pay debt in lieu of property tax increases for the 2002 referendum should have been raised by the Rowan-Salisbury School System or concerned citizens in 2006-2007.

“It is very difficult to resurrect commitment or memories with the passage of so much time.”

Miller said he contacted Sides to request a meeting to discuss the relationship between the two bodies on Dec. 18, the day after he was elected Board of Education chairman.

During that December meeting, school board member Josh Wagner brought up the topic, and there was a consensus to have Miller move forward with setting it up.

But Miller said he didn’t receive a response until Jan. 2, when he sent an email requesting the public records and to be added to the Jan. 7 county commissioners’ agenda.

“We need to have some understanding of our relationship before we can effectively do business together,” he said.

When Miller talked to Sides on the phone last week, he said, the two agreed what the meeting would “look like.”

“Even though the school board had made the request and therefore I believe we get to have say in how the meeting operates, I felt he and I mutually agreed on how this meeting would proceed and who would be here,” he said. Miller said he was surprised when Sides announced during Monday’s commissioners meeting that the press would not be allowed to attend.

“If it were your meeting and you had invited us, I would wholeheartedly agree that you would make those unilateral decisions,” he said.

Miller said when he was asked about the presence of the press at the meeting he “made it very clear that the school board has no intention of violating the public trust relative to the open meetings law.”

The school board contacted its attorney for advice on how to proceed. The attorney said it’s a gray area, Miller said.

“With it being a directive of the board and not just a decision I made to ask for this relational meeting, that makes him lean more to this meeting as committee meeting, and therefore has to be open to the public,” Miller said.

Miller suggested adjourning the meeting until the two parties could agree on the “appropriate process totally.”

Sides said he didn’t consider it an adjournment, but a cancellation.

Miller said that was a difference of opinion and the two needed to mutually agree to end the meeting.

Sides told county staff to return to work, and he left the room.

“The meeting is canceled,” Sides said. “Thank you, have a good day.”

Miller asked Sides if he would be willing to meet one-on-one to discuss the relationship.

“I would be glad to talk to you individually anytime you so desire,” Sides said.

After the meeting, Miller characterized the relationship between the two boards this way: “I don’t think there is one.”

“I started as a representative of the board making a request to try to develop” a relationship, he said. “I will follow up with Mr. Sides to continue to try to develop it.

“No one ever said it would be easy.”

Miller said the two boards need have a partnership.

“One board is not subservient to the other,” he said. “One board is not to be bullied or brow-beaten by another board. We are equal partners doing business for the greater good of Rowan County.”

Sides, who went to his office after the meeting, declined to talk to a Post reporter.

Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.