by Josh Lanier
The Union County Public Schools system will move forward with its plan to lay off 350 teacher assistants June 8, the end of the school year, unless Union County commissioners appropriate millions more to the cash-strapped system.
Schools’ Superintendent Ed Davis said in an email last month to Union County Manager Cindy Coto that schools and teacher assistants needed an answer so they could plan accordingly.
“We cannot afford to wait too long since year-round schools start in July and schools need to know how to plan,” he said in the email. “Also, I have indicated we will let people know by the end of the school year (June 8).”
County commissioners however have said they would not vote on any additional funding until the accounting firm Carr, Riggs and Ingram finished its financial audit of the school system. The firm report is expected sometime before June 21. Coto said the cost of the audit would not exceed $35,000.
Union County Schools requested last month $16.3 million in additional county funding to cover a $9.6 million budget shortfall in state and federal funding and help make up for years of flat funding from the county.
The audit also will allow county commissioners to approve the budget request on a line-by-line basis rather than funding it as one lump sum.
Board of Education Vice Chairman John Collins said if the county was to provide the school system with the additional funds after the June 8 deadline, schools could rehire teacher assistants. However, he feels it may be too late as many teacher assistants have signed on with other school districts or begun looking for work elsewhere.
It’s an argument schools’ supporters have made at county commissioner meetings since the funding fight began.
“No independent outside study is needed to show that we are down to the bottom of the barrel of funds and our performance speaks solely on the lengths our teachers are willing to go to make Union County students successful,” said Beth Warren, Sandy Ridge Elementary’s PTA vice president. “But let’s face reality. They have families to feed as well and can only be stretched so far. We will lose qualified teachers to other counties if we cannot fund our schools.”
Coto has said several times the audit shouldn’t be considered punishment or an insult. She believes the study is necessary so commissioners can make an informed decision on funding matters.
Many school supporters feel the audit is unnecessary and cruel, especially with so many jobs at stake, and should have been completed in a year when cuts weren’t so deep.
The county board seems split against approving the additional funding, with commissioners Tracy Kuehler and Kim Rogers in favor of giving the schools extra operating cash. Commissioners Todd Johnson, Jonathan Thomas and Chairman Jerry Simpson have said they want more information or want the school system to find other places to cut.
The board will meet June 4, but a vote on school funding is not expected.