Joint county, school board meeting continues next week

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 2, 2013

SALISBURY — Budget discussions between Rowan County commissioners and the school board won’t start until next week.

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education held a joint meeting Monday afternoon, but they quickly recessed it until 5 p.m. next Monday.

The location hasn’t been determined.

If there is a funding dispute, state law requires the two boards to meet within seven days of the county’s budget decision, which took place June 24. The school board called for the meeting on the evening of June 25.

Attorneys said the boards needed more time to prepare for the full meeting.

The school system asked the county for a $4.6 million increase in operational funds, but commissioners approved a $225,000 decrease based on a projected drop in enrollment of 140 students.

School Board Chairman Richard Miller has said that because of state and federal reductions, the school system needs that money to avoid cutting classroom positions.

Miller said he doesn’t know what will result from the mediation process, but “hopefully, there will be a positive resolution for the kids in Rowan-Salisbury.” Jim Sides, chairman of the Rowan County Board of Commissioners, said he doesn’t think mediation will resolve the issue, and it could end up in court.

“I won’t vote to give the schools any more money for this year,” Sides said. “I could balance their budget in five minutes, but I’m not a school board member.”

He said he believes the county is meeting its obligations to the school system. The state, he said, it the one that isn’t funding what it should.

Sides said the N.C. General Assembly could solve these arguments by giving counties a formula to determine school funding.

The first step of the dispute resolution process is a public, joint meeting between the two boards with a mediator.

The school board and board of county commissioners will each give a presentation of its budget outlook, said Brian Shaw, an attorney for the school board. The mediator can ask questions, request more information, facilitate discussions and make suggestions.

At that point, the boards can choose to continue negotiations through “working groups” in private mediation sessions.

These groups include the chairs (or designees), attorneys and finance officers of both boards, along with the county manager (or designee) and school superintendent (or designee).

If the working groups reach an agreement, each board must then meet and approve it.

Willis Whichard, a lawyer based in Morrisville, was chosen as the mediator by the attorneys of both boards.

Whichard has been an N.C. Supreme Court Associate Justice, an N.C. Court of Appeals Judge and a member of both the state Senate and the state House.

He could not attend Monday’s meeting, so he participated via speakerphone.

“The statute refers to a mediator as a mutual facilitator, and that is indeed what I will be,” Whichard said. “I have no power other than the power to attempt to persuade each board to a course of action.”

School Board Member Chuck Hughes said he hopes the two boards can discuss the issue rationally and compromise.

“I don’t want the county pointing fingers at the school board, and I don’t want the school board pointing fingers at the county,” Hughes said. “I want us all pointing fingers at Raleigh.”

He said state law seems to contradict itself about what the county’s and school board’s responsibilities are. The state should clearly define who is responsible for what, Hughes said.

Commissioner Craig Pierce said he also hopes the boards can reach a compromise.

Pierce said the school board has repeatedly talked about its budget problems, but it hasn’t offered solutions other than asking for $4.6 million.

“They knew from our conversations at budget time that that was not an option,” Pierce said.

If the dispute cannot be resolved, the mediator can declare an impasse and stop mediation.

The school board can then choose to file a lawsuit against the county in state Superior Court.

Sides said he supports a bill proposed in the N.C. Senate that would take away school boards’ ability to sue county commissioners for more funding.

“This is a problem the legislators created, and they need to come up with a way to fix it,” Sides said.

But Miller said there should be a fair way for the school board to raise questions about whether the county is meeting its obligations.

“I think it serves as a good check and balance,” he said, “so that there’s not too much power in one or the other.”

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.