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An open door to negotiation

Rowan County’s Board of Commissioners has considerable clout in public school matters. The board has the final say over local funding; the school system cannot take out a loan or sign a long-term lease without the county’s approval.
But a Union County jury has proved that school boards have clout, too. After mediation talks between Union schools and county commissioners got nowhere, the Union school board filed suit, and a jury said the county should give the schools $91 million — $4.97 million for general operating funds and $86.18 million for capital projects — on top of the money the county already allocated for the district. That was more than the school board had hoped for.
Union County is appealing the decision, but the jury’s conclusion nevertheless gave weight to the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education’s continuing efforts to get more funding from the county. Would Rowan commissioners want the schools’ needs and commissioners’ attitude toward them laid out before a jury of 12 men and women?
So here’s the latest in the mediation process between the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the county. Everyone agrees that the school system needs a true central office. But commissioners now refuse to take any action on the central office issue unless the school board drops the mediation and the threat of a lawsuit.
Considering the history of the boards’ discord, this feels like progress, and commission Vice Chairman Craig Pierce may deserve credit for that. He reopened the door to negotiations by presenting a list of five possible sites, all county-owned property, and suggested the county agree to build a central office on any one of them for $6 million. Commissioners agreed and allowed the school board to add two more sites to the list: the former Social Services headquarters and an undisclosed downtown location. Commissioners have ruled out the city-owned site at 329 S. Main St. — despite the half million dollars taxpayers have spent cleaning it up — without a “no further action” letter from state environmental officials.
If the schools end mediation and drop pursuit of 329 S. Main St., commissioners will respect the school board’s authority to choose any other site on the list and will pledge $6 million for it. Considering the effort and money the schools and city have put into 329 S. Main, that’s something of a Hobson’s choice. Commissioners are not offering anything they didn’t agree to — and back out of — last year, and they could back out of it again after the 2014 election. But commissioners are feeling heat from voters who want to see the office issue resolved and from a possible lawsuit that might force much bigger concessions. A win-win solution may still be possible. Keep your fingers crossed.

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