School board, county collide over budget
A budget impasse could be looming as members of the Union County School Board bristle at the $8 million cut in school funding the County Commissioners imposed during their March 17 budget workshop.
“The problem is that cuts of this magnitude will make significant differences in the product that we can give to our citizens,” School Board Chairman Dean Arp said. “Getting a balanced budget is easy, implementing one is hard. The numbers are easy, cut here, cut there, cut here, the problem is; the effect of those cuts are going to be tremendous.”
Carolyn Lowder, an 18 year veteran of the school board, wondered what the effects of the cuts would be.
“What is this going to do to us, strategically?” Lowder asked. “Are we once again going to be one of the low performing systems of the state, the whole state is going down in this race to the bottom!”
Union County Public Schools asked for a continuation of level funding of its operating budget, which was $79.5 million the last two fiscal years. The county, facing a $13.2 million budget shortfall, asked the school district to absorb 60 percent of that, proposing an $8 million cut in funding over the next two years.
Speaking before the board, Union County Public Schools Superintendent Ed Davis said he hoped to limit the impact on schools by using the remainder of the district’s federal stimulus money and reducing the capital construction and repair budget.
Davis outlined a plan of proposed cuts in expenses, totaling $2.5 million, which would reduce expenditures for supplies and materials, central services directors/supervisors, cut back on maintenance personnel, teacher supplements and eliminate all media-room assistants in the elementary schools.
His plan called for $1.5 million to shift from the district’s $5 million capital budget to expenses, the combination would amount to $4 million in savings.
Board members voiced concerns over the effects budget shortfalls will have on the schools.
“County commissioners are asking us to share in portion to our burden on the county budget; our position is that we are getting squeezed because the taxes were not passed to keep up with the mortgage payments in years past.” Arp said. “I don’t see this as what the citizens intended when they passed the bonds.”
School Board members expect the budget crisis will only get worse as the anticipated 10 to 12 percent reduction in state funding may force staff layoffs. Every million dollars in state funding is equivalent to 20 teachers, Davis stated. Coupled with the 10 percent reduction in county funding, he cautioned schools will likely have to increase class sizes.
“Education in this County has been the driving force of the tremendous growth we’ve experienced the last 10 to 15 years,” Lowder said. “People moved here for the schools and over and over expressed their willingness to be taxed to pay for those schools and provide a quality education they want.”
Lowder also questioned the County Commissioner fund balance or cash on hand policy. “Their requirement for a fund balance (of) 16 percent is a choice they made, the recommended level is 8 percent,” Lowder said, adding the extra money could absorb a portion of the deficit and limit the impact on schools.
The General Fund Balance policy of 16 percent is required to maintain the County’s favorable bond rating on its $600 million debt. The 2011 projected end of year General Fund balance is more than $45 million.
If commissioners and the school board cannot agree on a budget, the board of education can elect to seek mediation. The county has gone through the mediation process in 1998, 2003 and 2007.
“What we’ll do is exhaust all options (before mediation) and I don’t think they’re all exhausted at this point in time,” Arp said. “I think you could venture to say that legal options are premature at this time.”
Lowder countered, “The message that I think is going out so far from what I’ve heard so far that we’re just going to roll-over and take what we can get. That is the wrong message to send when negotiating. That’s my perception.”
Though most of the discussion involved Davis, Arp and Lowder, Board Member Laura Minsk, addressed Lowder’s perception, “I am not going to roll-over and play dead, I will not approve an $8 million dollar cut – I don’t agree with it all. I wanted you to know that.”
In other business, the school board awarded three contracts worth $1.2 million, $2.6 million, and $809,000 to NWN, Inc., Alcom Services, Inc. and Broadplex, Inc. to provide broadband Internet and internal networking access for local schools. Except for $234,000 paid by the school district, the contracts are funded by the Federal “Race to the Top” program.
The school board also awarded a $12,500 contract to the legal firm, Tharrington Smith, to provide legal services during the school board voter district realigning process, following the 2010 census. This is same firm selected following the 2000 census.