by Josh Lanier
MONROE – Union County commissioners will begin discussing next week how to handle a $16.3 million budget increase request from the school board that would save teacher jobs and make school improvements.
Relations between the two boards have been tense in recent months and the request is likely to begin heated and contentious debates.
The Union County Board of Education unanimously approved Tuesday a plan that asks the county to provide $7.4 million for technology and maintenance upgrades, $6.7 million to save 350 teacher assistants, $1.5 million to cover increases in the cost of utilities and benefits and $1.7 million in bonus money for teachers.
Commissioner Jonathan Thomas, who has been one of the school board’s biggest critics, said this week he hasn’t had time to fully digest the request, but the school system needs to realize the situation the county is in.
“We’re broke,” he said. “We’re broke, the state is broke, the country is broke and you can see in that how we operate as we’re making cuts everywhere. But I don’t see that when I look at the school system. I want to see them change how they do business to reflect the economic climate we are in.”
Thomas said he is fully committed to funding the school system’s needs, but feels much of the $16.3 million request is “wants.”
“I want the school system to come to us and say this is exactly what we need,” he said. “That hasn’t happened. What they’ve done is come to us with a starting point with that $16 million. … It’s a negotiation tactic.”
School board leaders disagree with Thomas completely and have said the entire request is necessary as the system continues it rapid growth. The Union County school system is expected to have an additional 700 students next year.
The county board isn’t expected to vote Monday to approve or deny the funding, but will likely vote to hire an outside agency to review the request and report back to County Manager Cindy Coto.
Coto also wants the board to break up the proposal into function or purpose categories. This would allow the board to vote on the request not as a lump sum, but by the merit of how each dollar would be spent. She said last week that fully funding the request would require the county to operate under a $17 million deficit next fiscal year, and it didn’t fit in the county’s long-term financial goals.
Clearing the air
Discussions over school funding in recent weeks have become charged and at times toxic, and last week it become too much for Superintendent Ed Davis.
Davis penned a letter in an attempt to clear the air.
“I must say that I am increasingly concerned with how the spending practices of Union County Public Schools have been presented and characterized,” he said in the letter posted on the school system’s website. “At first, I chose not to respond, thinking that most thoughtful people would see this for what it is and it would run its course. However, I can no longer sit by and see a great school district, the shining star of this county, continue to be disrespected and unfairly characterized.”
Davis doesn’t call anyone out by name in the letter, but he seems to take issue with a statement made by commissioner Thomas who said the school system’s central office spends money “like a drunken sailor.”
“There have been statements that the central office spends too much money. The facts simply do not support that statement,” Davis wrote. “Central office is about 1.5 percent of our $351 million budget. Any business that can operate such a large organization (approximately 40,000 students and 5,000 employees) with this percentage of upper level management and get the results that UCPS has achieved would be applauded as a model of efficiency. In fact, since the budget crisis of 2008 began, the senior level leadership in the UCPS central office has been reduced from 31 staff members to 24, a 23 percent reduction and a savings of $500,000.”
Thomas said this week he stands by his comments.
Want to go?
The Union County Board of Commissioners will meet Monday, May 7, at 7 p.m. in the Union County Government Center. The board is not expected to vote on the school board’s $16.3 million budget increase request. Budget discussions aren’t expected until later this month.