Trial approaches for UCPS, Union County

MONROE – Officials in Union County and leaders of the Union County Public Schools system are preparing to take their arguments over school funding before a jury as the start of the school year rapidly approaches.

The school system has sued the county after the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on more funding through more than a month of negotiation and mediation. County officials rejected a proposed settlement from UCPS in late July, prompting school officials to move forward with suing the county for more funding for the 2013-14 school year.

Neither side has gone into much detail about the negotiations and pending trial other than a pair of tersely worded news releases from the county and school system the day after mediation efforts failed. The tone of the emails, sent Aug. 1, could foreshadow arguments at trial, with the county saying schools have a nearly $3 million surplus in funding, while school system leaders have said county funding falls millions of dollars short of what is needed to run a functioning district.

“The school board’s proposal is not financially sustainable,” Cindy Coto, the county manager, said in a news release last week. Coto would not discuss the issue further when reached by email Wednesday, Aug. 7, citing the pending lawsuit, other than to say, “The controversy concerning the board of education’s budget for this year is no longer a conversation; the board of education has sued the county, and it is now a matter of litigation. The county has no further comment on this subject.”

The school system passed an interim budget for this school year as it works to secure more funding. UCPS officials have said previously the budget will ensure school starts back without a hitch, but haven’t gone into details on if, or when, cuts would be made during the year if more money isn’t received.

UCPS representatives refused to comment on the budget, directing all questions to the district’s legal representative in the pending lawsuit. The system’s own news release, sent out a few hours after the county’s response to the end of mediation, lectured county staff on a perceived breach of etiquette.

“It is highly inappropriate, irregular and irresponsible for either side to release details of confidential proposals made during mediation,” the UCPS release said. “We are stunned that the county has chosen to do so and to blatantly misrepresent the school system’s position and proposals. The county’s press release appears to be a transparent attempt to prejudice any potential jury pool.

“It truly represents a failure of leadership when county commissioners and the county manager choose to publicly attack their own school system for trying to meet the needs of its children and the expectations of its citizens.”

Both will now take their arguments before a judge and jury, possibly as soon as next week to accommodate the approaching school year, unless a last-minute settlement can be reached. Year-round classes resumed recently, and traditional calendar schools resume on Aug. 26

This year’s budget, approved in June, provides schools with roughly $82 million for operating costs, $3 million for capital projects, $46 million toward debt service and around $1.5 million for school resource officers. It’s a $2.1 million increase over last year’s budget.

School board chairman Richard Yercheck declined to discuss the pending lawsuit when reached this week, saying he wants the focus to stay on what matters – young kids heading off for their very first day of school and older students returning to their studies.

“This issue with the county should not do anything to spoil that moment for parents,” Yercheck said. “Those kids are the primary reason we are here.”

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