by Josh Lanier
MONROE – Union County commissioners voted down four separate motions Monday, June 4, that could have saved 350 teacher assistant jobs.
The motions, all put forth by Commissioner Tracy Kuehler, ranged from using the $54 million payout for leasing CMC-Monroe to peeling back a proposed half-cent sales tax and culling money from other departments all as means of saving the jobs.
All four motions ended in a tie with Commissioners Kuehler and Kim Rogers voting for the motions and Todd Johnson and Chairman Jerry Simpson voting against. Commissioner Jonathan Thomas excused himself earlier in the meeting for personal reasons.
More than 100 people turned out for the standing-room only meeting for a first glimpse at the 2012-13 Union County budget. That budget saw small funding increases in a few departments, but for the most part was a “status quo” budget, County Manager Cindy Coto said.
But those in attendance weren’t there to find out about how waste management would be handled, they wanted to know if the county would hand over at least $6.7 million to save 350 teacher assistant positions set to be laid off Friday, June 8.
The county won’t adopt its budget until June 18, but school supporters hoped they would take an early vote to secure the money. Kuehler forced the issue by adding a budget discussion to the agenda.
Her first motion would have freed up Coto to find the $6.7 million in the budget, but Commissioner Johnson said funding the money without a plan of how to pay for it was a disaster in waiting.
“That’s not leadership,” he said.
Commissioner Rogers pointed out that was the same directive Johnson, Thomas and Simpson gave when they asked the manager to find a half-cent tax cut.
Johnson said he was “for the TAs,” but not if it meant using the $54 million from the hospital lease because it would break an earlier vote barring commissioners from spending one-time money on recurring expenses that is the state’s responsibility.
But Kuehler said it was time the county got real about the problems in education spending at the state level. At some point, she said, it’s very likely the state is going to decide counties should be paying for their teachers and teacher assistants. Currently, the county is only responsible for capital costs for the school system.
Kuehler’s speech got a standing ovation. Johnson said it was nice to say those things in that setting for the applause, but it wasn’t going to fix the problem.
The biggest asset the county now has for its schools is a vastly growing number of parents, teachers and elected leaders from other towns who have started Facebook groups, held meetings and are planning trips to Raleigh to confront state leaders.
What started as a hodge-podge of parents wanting to keep teacher assistants in the classrooms has turned into a full-fledged movement with a clear message to county leaders.
Many parents said they plan to go to Raleigh to help secure the money, pleading with commissioners to fund the money now and allow them to get that money back from state leaders.
Effectively, as one mom put it, “Believe in us now, because we believed in you.”
Recent talks in the N.C. General Assembly have been promising. Statewide revenues are higher than expected, which could mediate some of the school system’s discretionary cuts. But that extra money, if passed, could be months away.
In other Union County commissioners news:
• Expect some explosions later this month after the board approved three firework shows. The first is set for June 16 at Wingate University. The Club at Longview will host two firework displays: June 23 at 9:30 p.m. and July 4 at 9:30 p.m.
• Commissioners approved a contract amendment that would extend Union-EMS through June 30 of next year. The current agreement was set to end June 30, 2012.
• Current Internal Auditor Interim County Finance Director Wes Baker will assume the role of assistant to the county manager until a permanent finance director is found. Baker’s role will include assisting with countywide strategic planning, operational assessments and special projects.
• There will be no July 2 Union County board meeting because of the July 4 holiday. The board will resume normal meeting schedules July 16.