by Josh Lanier
MONROE – Union County commissioners narrowly approved hiring an auditing firm to review the Union County school system’s request for $16.3 million more in funding.
The move effectively takes the discussion away from commissioners until the completed report is returned to the board. It is unclear how much the study will cost.
It’s the latest move in a saga that has left school board members, teachers, school administrators, parents and county commissioners frustrated, as all sides seem unwilling to budge from their positions and angry at how heated the talks have become. All the while, more than 350 teacher assistant jobs hang in the balance. Without at least $6.7 million from the county board, all of the teacher assistants will be let go.
Scores of Union County schools’ staunchest supporters attended Monday’s county board meeting to again voice their support for the system. And again, county board members listened, but still seemed to vote along the same lines they have been since the debate began.
The point of the auditor, County Manager Cindy Coto has said, is it allows the board to understand the school system’s finances and to make a better assessment of how the funds would be spent. 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.
Commissioners Kim Rogers and Tracy Kuehler voted against hiring the auditing firm while Jonathan Thomas, Todd Johnson and Chairman Jerry Simpson voted in favor of the measure.
One parent said after the meeting she found the study “ironic” because county commissioners chided school leaders last month for considering a $200,000 efficiency study. Those discussions took place during a school board meeting where members were told about a $9.6 million state and federal funding cut.
Beth Green, a mother of two Hemby Bridge Elementary students, said she was troubled by Monday’s vote, saying she felt the auditor was a way to cool school support.
“I believe the board of education has been more receptive to the parent and teacher outcry,” she said in an email. “As have some at the state level. I feel that the county commission is pushing the issue out further and further in hopes that the public will give up or get busy with summer plans.”
Green said, however, she’s still hopeful the board of education and county commission can work together for the benefit of area students.
Several parents shared Green’s sentiment, but some have held out hope the audit was more of a temporary roadblock to get more funding to the county’s 53 schools.
“I hate to see money that could go to teachers’ salaries spent on an audit,” said parent Valerie Secker. “However, if this helps convince the commissioners to fund the teachers and assistants, then it will be money well spent.”
Secker, the president of the Sandy Ridge Elementary PTA, said in an email she’s hopeful the county could assist the school system, mostly because the school system deserves it.
“Considering that Union County Public Schools is one of the highest performing school districts in North Carolina (and continues to draw families to this area), yet has one of the lowest per student spending rates, I find it hard to believe that an auditor is necessary,” she said. “It’s not as if the spending rates are high, as compared to other school districts, or that performance is down. After all, we have some of the top schools in the whole state!”
County commissioners have said they admire how well Union County students perform in state testing. Union County also has one of the highest graduation rates in the state.
But several commissioners have said the county can’t afford to fully fund the $16.3 million request.
How much money, if any, the county can give will likely be the topic of heated debates but unknown until the auditor’s report is returned.