Schools, county could end in mediation
by Josh Lanier
MONROE – Union County will not fund the $6.7 million needed to spare 350 teacher assistants from being laid off.
That consensus was reached at a budget presentation last week where commissioners also agreed to increase the school system’s budget. However, that increase was much less than school leaders had hoped.
Union County Manager Cindy Coto provided Friday, May 11, what will likely be the last iteration of the 2012-13 budget before it is presented to the board May 21.
In it, the Union County School System would receive about $6.2 million more than it did this year. That money would provide a $500 bonus to county teachers (about $1.7 million) and $500,000 to cover inflationary cost increases. It also would give the schools about $4 million more to pay for capital, maintenance and technology needs, about half of what the school system asked for. These additional funds would require the county to operate under a $6 million deficit next fiscal year.
Earlier this month, the school board unanimously approved a measure to ask for a $16.3 million funding increase that would have saved 350 teacher assistant jobs and paid for several necessary capital projects. The money was meant to make up for state and federal cutbacks and years of flat funding from the county.
County commissioners seemed weary about funding teacher assistant positions because the school system couldn’t guarantee how that money would be used. Union County Superintendent Ed Davis said if the county fully funded the $6.7 million request, that cash would be divvied up among the schools to be spent in the best way for the school. That could mean rehiring teacher assistants or more teachers.
That approach made commissioner Jonathan Thomas leery.
“I want to be able to tell the people who are calling me and asking me to save their jobs (what I can do),” he said. “But I need some answers from the school system that if we fund this money they will have jobs.”
Further complicating the issue is the county would need to continue to fund teacher pay for the foreseeable future until the state could regain its financial footing. Teacher pay is generally a state budget measure and commissioners feared setting a precedent that would leave them on the hook for the money.
School board members have stayed fairly silent publicly about the discussions hoping the funding issues could be worked out without going to mediation, a rarely used tool where a mediator decides if the school system is being properly funded. But privately, a number of school board members said they are at the very least “prepared” to go to mediation if necessary.
“We have our ducks in a row,” one school board member said, asking for anonymity. “We have what we need in case it goes that way, but we hope cooler heads will prevail.”
Last week, the county commissioners hired an auditing firm to examine the school board’s budget requests. It also will allow the county board to approve funding on a line-by-line basis, essentially picking and choosing what they would like to fund and what they would like to dismiss – something some school board members have pointed out is their purview.
School board Vice Chairman John Collins said that in the school systems $350 million budget, there are going to be some places where savings can be found, but those will be small.
“What we’re really talking about here is how we value our education in this town,” he said. “In a recession, we still had people move here to buy million dollar homes because they wanted their kids in our schools. Not funding the school system this year won’t hurt the juniors or the seniors. It’s going to really affect those kids in middle school and elementary school right now. Those are the ones who will be hurt the most and unfortunately people don’t seem to realize that until it’s too late.”