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Let’s hope for mediation

The taxpayers lose when local elected boards clash. But the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education is right to use whatever legal tools are at hand as it strives to educate the county’s 20,000 school children.
Tuesday the school board voted unanimously to challenge the county budget, setting into motion a process that starts with mediation and could lead to a lawsuit against the county. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that. Neither board can afford to run up a high legal bill. But if an impartial party can bring the two boards to agreement and avert a lawsuit, mediation could be the best money Rowan taxpayers spend this year.
The challenge seems premature, since commissioners voted to allocate more money if the state budget increases county revenues. But the school board is right on schedule, considering the tight timeline state statute sets. Within seven days of county budget approval, two things have to happen: First, the school board has to decide if the budget is adequate. Then, if the school board gives a thumbs down, chairmen of the two boards have to arrange a joint meeting of their boards. The clock has been ticking since commissioners approved the county budget Monday evening.
Commissioners are said to be weighing their options before they respond. The county always gives the schools less than they request, but this year was extreme. The schools asked for a $4.6 million increase in operating funds; commissioners cut the county’s allocation by $225,000. Commissioners would not even fund school resource officers for the middle schools, part of the system’s post-Sandy Hook security plan. Capital expenses are another, bigger story.
This school board need not fear souring relations with the county commission. The boards crossed that threshold months ago. Richard Miller, the new school board chairman, is taking a more aggressive approach than his predecessors. Jim Sides, the new county commission chairman, is not known for backing down, either.
At least 20 other school systems, including Cabarrus, have been through the budget mediation process since it became part of state law in 1997, some more than once. The results have been mixed, with a few counties being sued anyway. In most cases, though, the two boards wind up with better mutual understanding, and some formalize a plan to move forward. It’s worth a shot.
One study of the school budget mediation process found a consistent factor — “the disputes could have been resolved more quickly, or even avoided entirely, through better communication.” Misunderstandings and a lack of “quality communication” get in the way, as do personalities and politics.
That pretty much sums up the problem, doesn’t it?

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