Published 12:00 am Friday, January 10, 2014

Despite setting a Jan. 6 deadline for a $40 million settlement, the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education told its attorney Thursday to continue budget negotiations with Rowan County commissioners.
On Monday, commissioners offered to borrow $6.5 million to build a new school system central office in the 500 block of North Main Street. Commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce also proposed forming a committee to study the district’s other capital needs.
However, the Dec. 31 settlement offer obtained by the Salisbury Post, included a warning for commissioners if they didn’t approve the full amount at their most recent meeting.
“In the event this proposal is not approved at that time, the Board of Education has scheduled a meeting for January 9, 2014, at which time it would be the intent of the Board of Education to consider whether to ask the mediator to declare an impasse in order to allow us to proceed to litigation to resolve this matter,” Richard Schwartz, an attorney representing the school board in the budget dispute, wrote in the settlement offer.
At the end of a three and a half hour closed session Thursday, however, school board Chairman Dr. Richard Miller said the board had directed Schwartz to continue talks with county commissioners “in hopes of resolving mediation by the end of the month.”
The school board and county commissioners have been in budget mediation since the middle of 2013, when the county did not appropriate funding school system officials feel is necessary, including for capital improvements.
The school board later hired Schwartz, who represented Union County’s school board last year in a lawsuit against commissioners there that resulted in a $90 million jury award for the school system. Most of that was for capital projects.
In addition to $6.5 million for the new central office, the Dec. 31 settlement offer includes $33.5 million to pay for improvements at Knox Middle School and build a new elementary school in western Rowan that would consolidate the aging Woodleaf and Cleveland schools.
Miller said Wednesday the county’s latest offer was only a fraction of what he believed the two boards had agreed upon. On Thursday, though, he said he felt the bodies were making progress in resolving the dispute.
“I think we wouldn’t be authorizing continued dialogue if we didn’t,” he said.
Though part of the ongoing controversy over the central office stemmed from the school board’s desire to build it on a city-owned site at 329 S. Main St. and a majority of commissioners’ continued resistance to that property, the Dec. 31 settlement offer appears to resolve that issue.
The offer says the money would be used for a facility “which the Board plans to be located in the 500 block of North Main Street.”
That document also says money borrowed through the county for a central office would be supplemented by contributions from the city of Salisbury, a foundation and private donors.
The city has promised $500,000 to help with construction and another $125,000 to cover sewer, water and sidewalk costs, according to the settlement offer.
A private donor will give another $100,000 toward construction. The Robertson Foundation has pledged $375,000 for a dome to top the building and furnishings. And another private donor will donate $150,000 for solar panels.
The settlement offer also stipulates that when a 1993 bond issue is paid off in 2016, that money — roughly 50 percent of capital sales tax revenue — would go toward paying off the $40 million loan the school board wants now and the remainder would go for other school system capital needs.
The offer also says lottery money would be split equally among payments on a 2002 bond issue and school system capital improvements beyond the $40 million in projects the school system wants to do now.