MONROE – While Union County government officials and the Union County Public Schools Board of Education return to court for an appeal of the recent jury award favoring the school system, both sides are waging a battle in the court of public opinion as next year’s budget negotiations near.
The Union County Board of Commissioners filed an appeal on Thursday, Oct. 17, in an attempt to overturn a jury’s decision to award the school system $91 million. The award came at the end of nearly nine weeks of arguments in a Union County courtroom after mediation talks between the county and school system failed to find middle ground on the UCPS budget and school system leaders sued for more funding. The county gave UCPS around $85 million this summer for the 2013-14 school year, and a jury recently decided the school system needed an additional $91 million to function properly this year. Budget discussions for the next school year are expected to start in January.
As the appeals process works its way out, both the county commission and school board have taken their case to the public, who ultimately will foot the bill no matter what the court’s decision. The argument has shifted away from whether the school system needs the money and instead is focused on whether the county can afford the bill as both sides set themselves as the defenders of Union County residents.
“We cannot allow a verdict that would destroy our schools, bankrupt our businesses, and squeeze every single taxpayer in our county to go unchallenged,” Union County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Simpson said in a news release about the $91 million. “This decision would devastate businesses, seniors, taxpayers and children. … We are not going to sit by and have 12 jurors determine the future of our county.”
Simpson said voters should have the option of deciding if the school system should get “that kind of money and deal with the consequences of that kind of spending,” and commissioners have pledged in the past not to raise taxes – something Simpson said likely will be the end game of the award.
The school board, in its own news release that shortly followed the county’s, said statements such as those are just scare tactics and the county “clearly has the money.”
“Why are the commissioners, who refused any settlement offers and forced this case to the jury, now denying the verdict of 12 citizens of Union County who sacrificed nine weeks of their lives and careers to resolve this issue?”
UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said in the school system’s news release. “These funds are available. As a Union County citizen, as a father, and as a taxpayer, I call upon the county commissioners to drop their appeal and fully fund the recent verdict so that the school system may begin the work that has gone undone while claims were made that money was unavailable in recent years. Our children and our teachers deserve to work in classrooms where the roof does not leak and in schools with handicapped-accessible bathrooms.”
The county and school board are far apart on their math, with Simpson and county manager Cindy Coto saying last week the county only has $26.7 million in the general fund balance that could be spent toward the award – while leaving the county with little emergency funds this fiscal year – and Yercheck saying the county has $88 million in unrestricted general fund and general capital fund balances and $89 million in the unrestricted enterprise fund balance.
It’s a tale of two news releases as both sides wait for the appeals court to make a decision.
“The bottom line is that, if this verdict stands, it will cost taxpayers a bill of $64.4 million for just a single year,” Simpson said in the county’s release – assuming the $26.7 million is spent from the fund balance. “That’s a property tax increase of 27.7 cents. … The board cannot let this verdict stand and devastate our residents, our families, our businesses and our most vulnerable, like the elderly and those on fixed incomes. The board of commissioners will fight this verdict to the end for the people of our community.”
Said Yercheck, in the UCPS release, “Once again, the county is trying to claim that ‘the money is not there.’ The truth is that the money is there; it is just not being used, or is not planned for use, to support the public schools or to pay the judgment against the commissioners.”