MONROE – County commissioners not only gave Union County Public Schools nearly $5 million less than the district requested to operate for 2020-21, but they also blocked a $130 million school bond referendum from going on the ballot.
These actions taken June 15 shocked and disappointed school board members.
School board member Christina Helms said it seems like the relationship between Union County and UCPS is reverting back to where it was a few years ago when the district sued the county over inadequate funding.
“It just seems like we’re repeating old patterns over and over and over again,” Helms said. “The schools aren’t being funded properly.”
UCPS sought an increase of nearly $8 million to its county operating budget (for a total of $110.9 million) to meet state mandates and prevent teachers, nurses, psychologists, social workers and bus staff from leaving for neighboring districts.
The county granted UCPS a $3.1 million increase instead. County Manager Mark Watson said during the June 15 meeting that the loss of sales tax this fiscal year due to COVID-19 and what his staff projected for the next fiscal year created some funding issues.
“We were not able to address and fund all of the needs that were requested,” Watson said. “To that, I would say to UCPS, we hear you and we understand your needs.”
Watson said if the county found additional revenues, he would return before commissioners with a prioritized list of projects and funding needs to distribute.
As for the bond, Watson recommended commissioners form a committee to evaluate capital needs over the next five to 10 years for UCPS and South Piedmont Community College. That work could lead to a bond in 2022.
“At this time, unfortunately, we do not have sufficient information necessary to determine the escalation factors, inflation and timing of available funding,” Watson told commissioners.
Commission Chairman Jerry Simpson said no one is sure what education is going to look like as schools will change the way they operate to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Questions persist about COVID-19’s effect on schools and families.
The school board convened June 29 to prioritize its allocation from the county for 30 instructional positions to meet state requirements to reduce class sizes and pay for increases to contracted services, utilities, human resources/finance software and staff benefits. The remaining $588,463 will be put toward the reopening of schools.
“There’s going to be a lot of PPE needs. There’s going to be transportation needs,” Finance Director Shanna McLamb said. “While we do have some additional funding from the state, I don’t believe it’s going to be sufficient.”
School board chairwoman Melissa Merrell and vice chairwoman Kathy Heintel were both under the impression the county did not need any further information from the district about the budget or bond. They had met with Simpson and vice chairman Dennis Rape to go over the budget the week prior to the vote. And when the county canceled a previously scheduled joint meeting between the two boards, Merrell and Heintel reached out to county leaders to see if they had any questions. They didn’t hear anything.
Merrell was also confused by feedback the district received from the county. She took issue with the county making UCPS spend its reserve
funding for emergencies and telling the school board to go before commissioners for emergencies. Now UCPS doesn’t have a reserve to address the reopening of schools or chillers.
“I’m extremely disappointed that they said that if there was anything we needed to come to them and let them know what we need to continue to be one of the best school districts in the state,” Merrell said. “And they have unanimously chosen to not to listen to us when we bring this information to them that we’re losing our position in the state for our employees.”
As for the bond, Merrell said the district has been discussing its five-year capital plan, including future land purchases, school improvements and building replacements, for over a year with the county.
School board member Gary Sides said that in his 30 years of living in Union County, he has never seen a commission deny the public an opportunity to vote on a school bond.
Sides said Watson’s idea of starting a committee to examine the capital needs of UCPS and SPCC was redundant, considering the district’s facilities committee has already done the work.
Helms said Forest Hills High School needs love and attention. She finds it hard to believe commissioners don’t care enough about the citizens by denying them a chance to vote on a bond.
“This is ludicrous to me,” Helms said. “It just shows a lack of empathy on their part – their lack of concern for our teachers, for our schools. It’s just disgusting to me.”