by Josh Lanier
MONROE – Some cried, some begged and one even sang, but the more than 50 school supporters packed into Monday’s county commissioner meeting had one message: save our teacher assistants.
Union County School supporters again arrived en masse to beg for the county’s help in covering state and federal budget shortfalls. This time, however, they seemed even more organized, reminding commissioners repeatedly that they would remember this debate when they voted in the next county election.
The $9.6 million shortfall in state and federal funding would require the county to pay $6.7 million to save 350 teacher assistants’ jobs. In a budget work session last week the board came to a consensus that it would not give the schools the money because, they said, it would set a bad precedent and break a rule the board agreed to when they took office.
“We all agreed – everyone up here – we all agreed we would not spend one time money on a recurring expense,” Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said.
That one-time money is the $54 million the county received last year for leasing a building to CMC-Monroe.
School supporters see that money as a stop-gap until the state could get a better sense of revenue and their budgets. State leaders have said revenues are up recently, but how much more money that would mean for Union County schools is unclear. If the county would fully fund the school system’s $16.3 million budget increase request, any extra money from the state would be given to the county, school leaders have said.
But Thomas reminded the crowd at Monday’s meeting that Union County has other major needs, including a new jail, which a recent report said was in desperate conditions.
School supporters weren’t swayed.
One teacher who spoke to the board said that by letting school funding lag, unemployment in the county would rise, as would crime and welfare and the effects would be felt for years.
Fred Newman, a kindergarten teacher at Benton Heights Elementary, addressed the board with his teacher assistant beside him.
“Cutting teacher assistants from our schools would be like removing nurses from an operating room. … Which one of you,” he said pointing to the commissioners, “would want to have surgery in that operating room?”
Most speakers aimed their comments at Commissioners Thomas, Jerry Simpson and Todd Johnson, who was not at Monday’s meeting. Commissioners Tracy Kuehler and Kim Rogers have both pledged support for giving the school system the money.
Simpson and Thomas both said they supported the school system and teacher assistants. Thomas said he wanted to see the school system make spending cuts outside of the classroom first. But the school system has made major cuts in recent years as county funding remained flat.
Simpson added that although there seemed to be a vocal majority who wanted the county to save the jobs, he also had received a number of letters and emails from people who didn’t want to see those funds turned over.
He held up a letter, but declined to read it to the crowd without getting the author’s permission first.
School supporters have become more frustrated in recent weeks as the stalemate between them and commissioners seems to fester after each meeting.
Parkwood High School Parent Teacher President Jennifer Stringfellow seemed to sum up the crowd’s frustrations when she took to the podium.
“I want to thank you for listening to our concerns,” she said. “I just really hope you’re hearing them.”
Want to see the budget?
County Manager Cindy Coto will present the proposed 2012-13 budget June 4 during the next county commissioner meeting. Commissioners are expected to vote on the budget by June 18.