Schools, county leaders meeting Tuesday

Published 12:00 am Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and the Rowan County Board of Commissioners will hold a joint meeting Tuesday to discuss budget mediation, including funding for the school system’s capital projects list.
The meeting is in response to a letter the school board sent to county commissioners on Jan. 10, requesting a face-to-face meeting between the two groups before the county commissioners’ scheduled meeting on Jan. 21.
Rowan-Salisbury School System Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody said the two boards wanted to meet “as quickly as possible” when all members of both were able to attend.
The letter, signed by school board Chairman Dr. Richard Miller and Vice Chairwoman Kay Wright Norman, states, “The Board of Education is ready to resolve these matters now. We believe that requires a special meeting, and we are anxious and willing to meet with you.”
The capital needs the boards plan to address are a central office to be located on the 500 block of North Main Street in Salisbury, a consolidated elementary school in western Rowan County and repairs to Knox Middle School.
The two boards have been communicating through their attorneys since June regarding the school system’s yet-to-be-approved budget for the 2013-14 school year, but both groups hope the meeting will help resolve their disagreements about capital project funding.
Commissioners Vice Chairman Craig Pierce says he “hopes to settle any miscommunications we have between the two boards.”
Moody said, “We would be hopeful that we could resolve things at that meeting.”
The letter goes on to say that the school board is “determined to resolve these matters by no later than the end of the month, through the completion of a signed and binding Memorandum of Agreement.”
If funding disagreements are not resolved, Moody said the school board would consider the two boards to be at an impasse and would pursue legal action.
Miller added: “It’s time to reach an agreement or go to court.”
The school board hired Richard Schwartz to advise and represent the board if the case goes to court.
Schwartz represented Union County’s school board in a similar lawsuit against commissioners there. The school board won and was awarded $90 million by a jury. Most of the money was for capital projects.
According to Rita Foil, Rowan-Salisbury Schools’ public information officer, Schwartz will attend the meeting, but Pierce said the county’s attorney will not.
Pierce said county commissioners feel the mediation process creates a disconnect between the boards and makes it harder for each board to understand what the other is saying.
“This is just a face-to-face meeting between the two boards to be able to talk to each other, not through a mediator, and see if we can’t resolve the confusion or anything that needs to be resolved,” Pierce said.
Miller said the initial budget proposal the Board of Education took to county commissioners during the summer of 2013 included the central office, an energy project and Woodleaf Elementary as its primary capital needs, but that “all of our top tier needs have been a part of the discussion during the entire process.”
County officials have already approved two of the school system’s primary capital projects: a consolidated elementary school in western Rowan County and a central office.
However, school board members are still looking for funding to make major improvements to Knox Middle School. Renovations at Knox have been in the top tier of the district’s capital needs for eight to 10 years, Miller said.
On Dec. 9, county commissioners held a special meeting and voted to provide the funding to construct a new elementary school in western Rowan County, which would consolidate Woodleaf and Cleveland elementary schools.
The Board of Commissioners allotted an amount not to exceed $22 million for land acquisition, engineering and site preparation, construction, equipment and furnishings. Commissioners left the location of the school up to the Board of Education.
The Board of Education sent a counter-offer letter on Dec. 11, in which it asked for $7 million for a central office in addition to the $22 million for the elementary school. The board also requested that any savings from either of the two projects be used for urgent roofing and safety needs throughout the school system.
The counter-offer letter stated that the resolution would not “by any means, cover all of the existing capital outlay needs, particularly those involving roofing, safety, energy and the other aging school facilities, particularly Knox Middle School.”
The letter said the school board would be bringing future requests to meet those other needs to county commissioners.
On Dec. 20, Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Sides, Pierce, Miller and Moody met to clarify the Dec. 11 proposal, particularly the references to Knox Middle School and future funding.
The Jan. 10 letter sent to county commissioners recounts that Moody and Miller told Sides and Pierce that including funding for renovations at Knox Middle School would meet all of the school system’s top-tier needs. Sides then suggested addressing all the school system’s capital needs at one time.
The school board then devised a new settlement offer dated Dec. 31 proposing that county commissioners appropriate a total of $40 million for renovations to Knox, a new consolidated elementary school and a central office in the 500 block of North Main Street.
The settlement also addressed how lottery funds and sales tax revenue would be used to fund the projects.
On Jan. 6, county leaders approved $6.5 million for a central office at the new proposed site.
Pierce explained that the consolidated elementary school and central office proposals were approved separately because commissioners wanted to move forward with the elementary school, but “there was an issue at the time with the central office location.”
The commissioners’ Jan. 6 offer made no mention of funding for renovations to Knox, however.
“I think the biggest issue that we have is the money being requested for improvements has just come to light,” Pierce said.
He said the entire board had not been aware of the additional $12 million need to renovate Knox.
“This is all new to us,” he said, adding that this is why the two groups need a joint meeting.
Another key disagreement between the two boards is how to finance the capital needs projects.
The county is responsible to determine the method of financing, but the school board feels that commissioners should be doing more. Pierce says the county will continue to use lottery funds to finance the current capital needs.
“First and foremost, there has been limited, if any, willingness on the part of Rowan County commissioners to generate local funding for our needs,” Miller said.
The Jan. 10 letter states, “Those sources of state funds were intended to supplement, not supplant, local responsibility to provide for school capital needs. In effect, you are requiring us to use these dedicated state revenue streams to repay funds borrowed to finance school facilities without using any local funds whatsoever.”
Miller said county commissioners have been unwilling to appropriate any funds for capital projects above the state-mandated sales tax profits and lottery funds since 1986.
“That’s what’s so frustrating,” he said.
Though $30 million of property tax profits is allocated to the school system’s operating costs each year, none of that money goes to fund capital needs. Miller suggested dedicating an additional portion of property tax revenues to the school system’s capital needs.
The meeting will take place at 9 a.m. on Jan. 21 in the J. Newton Cohen, Sr. Room located on the second floor of the Rowan County Administration Building, 130 West Innes St., Salisbury.