County manager: Plan not consistent with county’s budget goals
by Josh Lanier
The Union County Public Schools Board of Education’s finance committee unanimously approved a plan this week that would ask the county for an additional $16.3 million in funding to save more than 350 jobs, make needed school improvements and provide a $500 bonus for all county teachers.
The school board will need to approve the plan at its Monday, April 30, meeting and send the measure to a county board that has appeared divided during heated debates over school board funding.
In Superintendent Ed Davis’ plan, presented Wednesday, April 25, the school system would request an additional $7.4 million in technology and maintenance upgrades, $6.7 million to save 350 teacher assistants, $1.5 million to cover increases in the costs of utility and benefits and $1.7 million in bonus money for teachers.
That money would cover a $9.6 million hole left from state and federal cutbacks and begin to make up for years of flat funding from the county.
Union County’s current 2012-13 budget doesn’t include any increases to the schools’ budget from last year’s appropriation.
Union County Manager Cindy Coto said Wednesday increasing the school funding by $16 million would require the county to work with a nearly $17 million deficit. Finance leaders are currently projecting a $161,000 deficit for the next fiscal year.
Many school supporters have pointed to a $54 million windfall the county received late last year for leasing the CMC-Union building as a potential source of funding for the schools.
Coto said using those funds for what would become recurring costs is shortsighted.
“In my opinion it is not responsible to fund ongoing costs with one time funds as once the funds are exhausted, you again have to find a revenue source to meet the void,” she said in an email. “One of the county’s objectives is to achieve fiscal sustainability, this approach is not consistent with that objective.”
School board officials said if the county fully funds its proposal, any extra money from the state will be given to the county.
Coto’s remarks will likely underpin what is expected to be a heated and contemptuous debate between county commissioners and the school board and one that could lead to mediation.
“If (the school system) wants their money it isn’t going to be easy,” Commissioner Kim Rogers said. “It’s going to be a fight.”
Last week, Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said the school system wasted money like a “drunken sailor” and that’s what caused their budget crisis. Commissioner Todd Johnson said he supported the system, but added there were places to cut in the schools’ budget that could save jobs.
Rogers said she didn’t think the large increase was overreaching or underhanded. It has more to do with “catching up” on projects and initiatives that have been put on hold because the county and state hadn’t increased schools’ funding in a number of years, she said.
“It’s unfortunate we haven’t been able to fund them accordingly over the past several years because this is what happens,” she said. “Had we done smaller step-up increases over the years to keep up with the growing number of students, we wouldn’t now be faced with a massive lump sum that is going to be harder to swallow for some.”
Davis told the finance committee the system had “kicked the can down the road” too long and the increases in students, inflation and facility needs had grown exponentially over the years.
Union County is expected to add as many as 700 students next year – about the population of one elementary school.
“I have trepidations asking the county to cover something that’s a state responsibility,” said Davis, who presented the plan. “ … This could have unforeseen consequences down the road, but this is what the public has said they want and we’ve listened to them.”
Parents, teachers and school supporters have turned out en masse to school board and county commission meetings to protest the expected cuts.
Several parent-teacher organization leaders attended Wednesday’s finance committee meeting and said they were happy the board heard their concerns.
Valerie Secker, Sandy Ridge Elementary School PTA president, couldn’t attend the meeting because of work, but said she was thrilled Davis and the committee had stepped up for students.
“The full school board will hopefully approve the recommendations and send them forward to the county commissioners,” she said. “It’s another step in the right direction, but only one small step in a long and arduous budget process. It’s really too bad that education is such a political issue in Union County.”
Secker, and a number of other parents, have said they fear for children’s safety if teacher assistants were taken out of the classroom. Along with helping teacher’s plan, teacher assistants spend more time working one-on-one with students and making sure their needs are met.
“Teachers and teaching assistants keep our kids safe,” Secker said. “Fewer teachers and more kids equals less safety, it’s that simple.”