Little common ground surfaces from county, school leaders Gathering meant to open communication as two boards discuss funding, authority

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 8, 2013

SALISBURY — Three days after county commissioners slammed the door on a $6 million commitment to the Rowan-Salisbury School Board for a new downtown central office, the two boards met to discuss the rocky relationship.
Neither side flinched.

Commissioners attempted to keep the central office issues off the table, but the matter crept up several times Thursday afternoon, until Rowan County commission chairman Jim Sides spoke up.
“We shouldn’t have to keep chewing the same food over and over again,” Sides said of Monday’s 3-2 vote that halted plans on the South Main Street project. “If we vote the central office down, it ought to be a dead issue.”
Sides went further and addressed any possible speculation that commissioners were concerned the city of Salisbury has said they’re considering funding the remainder of the central office project.
“We don’t care if you make a deal with the city and they build you a building,” he said. “We don’t have a problem with that.”
Richard Miller, the school board chairman, encouraged members from both boards to speak. Several voiced a need for better communication.
Some said funding was the problematic constant from one election to the next. Others said respect for the value of each board had dwindled.
Sides said he perceived himself to be the target of all funding or county-related criticism.
“I don’t control anybody else on this board. I only have one voice,” he said. “I don’t determine before any vote what the votes are going to be or what the outcome is going to be.”
Craig Pierce, county commission vice chairman, said if members of the board of education wanted to blame someone for the central office vote, they could blame him.
“If you’ve got an issue with us voting down the school administration office — put the monkey on my back ’cause that was my campaign issue,” Pierce said. “If you’ve got a problem with it, bring it right here. I don’t have a problem, ’cause I’m proud to say I did what the citizens asked me to do.”
Despite for a few heated remarks, demeanors remained relatively cordial.
The meeting began promptly at 4 p.m. at Hood Theological Seminary just off Klumac Road. A handful of people watched from rows of chairs placed in front of the three adjacent tables forming a large U-shape.
Dr. Albert Aymer, president of Hood, began the meeting with prayer and a few peaceful remarks. “Nothing will thrill me more than to see that this is a nice, new start for us and you can leave here and say, ‘Ya know, we have a common purpose and a common destiny,’ ” Aymer said.
The boards began with discussions of respect, authority and whether the boards should be seen as equal.
Pierce said the equality representation is wrong.
“I don’t have a problem saying the school board and the county commission are equal when we’re discussing school matters. What needs to be understood is the county commission has more than just the school board on its plate,” Pierce said, citing several county-managed departments.
Charles Hughes, a school board member, fired back, calling the equality discussion “petty.” He urged members of both boards to discuss the needs of county citizens.
“I know I know what respect is,” Hughes said. “We need to look at what our needs are and what our wants are.”
Miller, the school board chairman, asked commissioners for help on how to reach a consensus on funding issues.
Lottery funds and a 2002 bond referendum, Miller said, were ways the school board could have paid for larger projects. That money was used to pay down bond debt.
“How do we together get there?” he asked. “There are a number of sources where we could be paying for these things even in an economic downturn.”
Sides countered by saying “the reality is you get your money, at least on this board, by convincing three people.”
“I make no apologies for taking the lottery money, for taking the sales tax money and for not raising tax,” Sides said.
“I will not vote to raise an additional 4 and a half cent tax to let you build any building and I won’t vote to give you the lottery money to let you build any building.”
Board members on both sides agreed the two entities could do a better job by focusing on their leadership positions and improving the boards’ relationship.
Commissioner Jon Barber said the boards haven’t met since 2007 and the relationship reflects it.
“Not a whole lot has changed,” said Barber, who also was a commissioner then.
Commissioner Chad Mitchell said the boards currently communicate solely through board motions or media coverage, neither of which are productive.
“We have to decide how we’re going to work together,” Mitchell said. “It has gone too far.”
After the meeting, both sides said the meeting went well.
“This was an important meeting,” Sides said. “Everybody needed to air their dirty laundry.”
He said he would be open to meeting with school board members every other month.
Miller said his focus was to find some of the common points between the boards for discussion.
Following the recent “acts,” Miller said, “I think it actually went better than I thought it would.”
Contact reporter Nathan Hardin at 704-797-4246.