Schools will get last year’s funding as mediation continues

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, July 30, 2013

SALISBURY — County commissioners have agreed to give the local school system the same amount of money as they did last year, but budget talks aren’t over yet.
After nearly five hours of closed mediation sessions Monday evening, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and Rowan County Board of Commissioners voted to recess the meeting until 5 p.m. on Aug. 5. The location is yet to be determined.
The two boards met separately with their attorneys on the third night of negotiations. Mediator Willis Whichard, a lawyer who has served both as an appellate judge and as a state legislator, went back and forth between them to relay each offer and counter-offer.
Commissioners came back into open session midway through the night to take one vote. They unanimously agreed to use state sales tax money to restore $225,000 in funding to the Rowan-Salisbury School System.
That money had been cut in the county’s budget due to a projected drop in school enrollment. But when they passed the budget in June, commissioners agreed that they would restore it if the state gave more sales tax revenue to the county than expected.
Immediately after its vote, the county board went back into closed session for more negotiations. Commissioner Chad Mitchell was absent for the meeting and participated in part of it by phone.
At the beginning of Monday’s meeting, both board chairmen said there was no agreement in sight so far. But by the end, they seemed a bit more optimistic.
“We appear to be making some progress,” said Richard Miller, chairman of the school board. “We want to see if there’s a chance of reaching a solution.”
Commissioner Chairman Jim Sides said he doesn’t know whether the issue can be resolved out of court.
“We’re going to try to come to a resolution,” he said. “It’s always a possibility.”
According to the state statute governing budget disputes between counties and school boards, the mediation process is supposed to end by Aug. 1. But both boards can agree to continue it beyond that date, as long as the county funds the school system at the same level as it did the previous year.
While the school system is no longer being cut in the county budget, school officials still say it needs an increase in funding just to keep operating at the same level it does now.
The county says it has its own financial troubles and can’t fill the hole by lost state and federal funding to the schools.
If the mediator declares an impasse between the two boards, the school board can sue the county to get the issue resolved in court.
Willis said Monday that the purpose of mediation is to avoid that scenario.

Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.