County OKs deal on school funds Attorneys to draft final version; joint planning panel to work out details

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 28, 2014

The Rowan County Board of Commissioners and the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education reached an agreement that could mean the end of budget disputes over the school system’s top three capital needs.

“I’m excited about moving forward,” said Superintendent Dr. Lynn Moody.

She praised both boards for working in the best interest of the students, as well as the citizens of Rowan County.

The two boards have been in mediation since June, disputing funding for a consolidated central office, repairs to Knox Middle School and a new elementary school replacing Woodleaf and possibly merging it with Cleveland Elementary.

The school board and county commissioners met Thursday at the school system’s Ellis Street Office with mediator Judge Willis Whichard and their attorneys.

“It appeared to me that they were not so far apart,” Whichard said, which is why he asked the two groups to “make one more attempt.”

The current agreement would establish a joint planning committee comprised of administrative, financial and elected leadership from both boards. The committee would meet monthly until an acceptable plan for both groups is approved.

By July 1, either the school board or county commissioners would provide half a million dollars for planning and design development costs at Knox and Woodleaf. This advance will be reimbursed when funding sources are secured.

Also, $6.5 million will be provided for a central office at the 500 block of North Main Street in Salisbury. The Board of Education will oversee the design and construction of the facility.

The school board will also draw up plans for Knox and Woodleaf within a $34 million budget, including planning money. The Board of Education will submit those plans to the joint planning committee. Once approved by the committee, commissioners will only need to approve plans if they exceed $34 million.

County commissioners will then provide the remainder of the $40 million in varying increments over the next four years. For the 2015-16 academic year, commissioners will give the school system $12 million and $3.5 million the following year. On July 1, 2017, a final installment of $18 million will be provided.

During those four years, the Board of Commissioners will keep all lottery funds and $2.5 million in sales tax profits each year. The Board of Education will receive anything exceeding $2.5 million in sales taxes.

If any additional capital funds are needed, they are not come out of or cause a reduction in local funding for Rowan-Salisbury School System’s operating expenses.

In addition, commissioners will maintain and allow access to funding for emergency needs in the school system as identified by the school board.

County attorneys will write up a final memorandum of understanding for both groups to approve.

“I certainly believe we have an acceptable resolution for our three immediate needs,” said Chairman of the Board of Education Dr. Richard Miller, adding that he hopes this agreement will “lay the groundwork for better solutions in the future.”

“I think that what we accepted today is significantly better than going to court,” said Jim Sides, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “I didn’t want to go to court. At least this way, we can spend our money productively.”

The final proposal varied from what the Board of Education brought to commissioners Thursday. Initially, commissioners were responsible for the half-million-dollar advance and $1.5 million a year for ongoing repairs and maintenance. Excess funding would be transferred to the next capital project or to general repairs and maintenance if funding exceeded the total amount for all three projects.

In addition, the amounts in the four-year payment plan were $6.5 million, $14.5 million, $7 million and then $12 million.

Coming to an agreement was not a simple process.

By state law, county commissioners are responsible for providing for the financial needs of the school system. Both groups have agreed on the necessity of the school system’s top three needs, but the two boards have struggled to find a compromise that will not result in increasing property taxes.

Commissioner Jon Barber argued that regardless of any agreement made, property taxes will eventually go up.

“The question is just how much,” he said, citing a strong possibility that the General Assembly could begin withholding lottery proceeds.

Craig Pierce, vice chairman of the Board of Commissioners, suggested the best way to deal with the situation was to “address it in smaller pieces.”

He said breaking the agreement into three separate proposals would allow work to begin on the central office, while the other two projects were on separate timelines.

The two boards also bickered over wording and the money to finance ongoing additional needs.

“It sounds like you’re just setting us up for the next lawsuit,” Pierce said.

School board member L.A. Overcash said things were worded the way they were because of the mistrust between the two boards.

When an agreement to the specific terms was finally reached, Sides was adamant that county attorneys should draw up the final agreement.

“I’m not agreeing to all this language that is in there,” he said.

Rowan County attorney Jay Dees said the agreement should be a straight terms sheet.

“I think it’s about control,” said Kay Wright Norman, vice chairwoman of the Board of Education. “Whoever’s running the show has decided we’re not smart enough to know what we need.”