MONROE – Union County Public Schools could ask county commissioners to not only offer more flexibility for next year’s fiscal budget but also to place a bond referendum on the November 2020 ballot to address future construction needs.
The school board and county commission held a joint meeting on Feb. 24 to discuss UCPS’s budget, but Superintendent Andrew Houlihan explained how there are still a lot of unknowns thanks to the state.
“We are operating under a very challenging time – a historical time – in this state due to the lack of a new budget from the state that is reflective of the current needs of school systems,” Houlihan told commissioners.
School board members have been lobbying state lawmakers and the governor to strike a budget compromise that would give the district more financial clarity. In the meantime, UCPS is operating on last year’s state budget.
The district is dealing with increases in services, enrollment and staffing as it absorbs increases in costs such as benefits and retirement. And they’re not hearing much from Raleigh about next year’s fiscal budget, Houlihan said.
“We have been working this year internally to make some hard decisions and have been very aggressive about saving as much and being as conservative as we can with our budget,” Houlihan assured commissioners.
Union County Public Schools operates with funding from the county, state and federal governments, so if the district could eventually request more from the county to bridge any gaps.
“We’re not here today to tell you that we need something but going down this road even further may put us in a situation where we need to make that request,” Houlihan said, noting this hasn’t gotten to crisis mode yet.
UCPS also shared an outline of its 10-year capital needs with commissioners, prompting County Manager Mark Watson to ask if the school board projected the need for a bond referendum in November.
“We would like to begin having discussions about a referendum whether it’s this year or two years,” school board member Kathy Heintel replied.
Watson cautioned the school board about making the request too late in the year.
“Planning is everything,” Watson said. “As soon as we can have those numbers and know the desire of the board of education, the sooner we can begin our preparation for what we need to do, which is going to be extensive on our end. The board of commissioners needs to also have the opportunity to evaluate those recommended requests.”
School board chairwoman Melissa Merrell mentioned the long-range needs of the district haven’t changed since last year. She remembers the school board discussing the need for the $54 million bond in April and May 2016, as well as asking the county to put the referendum on the November ballot in June of that year.
“We are getting ever so close to finishing those seven projects that were on the bond in 2016,” Heintel said
“Within budget,” Merrell added.
The school board is likely to focus a bond referendum on some of the county’s aging high schools.
Mark Strickland, assistant superintendent for administration and operations for UCPS, explained that school staff felt upgrading high schools to be among the greatest long-range needs because they are big-ticket items that aren’t getting cheaper.
“Several of our high schools are 60-plus years old and have had various renovations and additions over the years,” Strickland said. “They are not comparable to the five newer high schools.”
Strickland told commissioners there was some concern over the timing and costs of future construction as a couple of North Carolina school districts have experienced higher costs than anticipated for their projects.
County Commissioner Stony Rushing said it’s important to examine enrollment projections, particularly in the western part of the county.