Court is next stop for budget fight

Aug. 01, 2013 @ 04:41 PM

After three mediation meetings and no agreement, Union County and Union County Public Schools are taking their budget fight to court.

Both parties met Wednesday morning. County officials issued a press release before the end of business, stating that UCPS failed to resolve the funding dispute. In it, the county alleges it used updated state budget numbers to calculate how much money the local school district would receive.

UCPS blasted the county’s release with a press release of their own a few hours later. It stated that county officials lacked a true understanding of how school finance worked, that they wrongfully released confidential material from the mediation and misstated the schools’ position.

“The County’s press release appears to be a transparent attempt to prejudice any potential jury pool,” the release stated.

By Thursday afternoon, legal wheels were in motion. State mediator Andy Little said he was in the process of typing up his official report that the two parties did not reach a compromise. Meanwhile, attorney UCPS hired to represent them was finishing the lawsuit paperwork.

The impasse was a surprise to County Manager Cindy Coto, who said she thought there would be a mutually beneficial resolution for everyone.

“I’m always a Pollyanna,” Coto said. “I always believe there’s going to be a positive outcome.”

She could not release many details of the mediation proceedings because the information is still protected. But Coto said County Finance Director Jeff Yates used state budget numbers to calculate how much money UCPS would receive from the state.

“Based on the records, they had nearly $3 million in surplus this year,” Yates said.

From some of the budgeting discrepencies, Yates said it appears UCPS over-estimated the cost of some things and under-estimated state funding.

County calculations were not correct, UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said.

“We disagreed with their numbers and they disagreed with our numbers,” he said.

In its release, the county made several statements about school funding, such as UCPS adding 971 positions in fiscal year 2012-2013. Yercheck referred all questions to Richard Schwartz, the Raleigh attorney representing UCSP in the budget fight.

“None of that is true,” he said in response to the county’s statements about UCPS funding. “The county has no idea what it’s talking about and that’s why we’re going to court.”

There was time to explain school funding so county officials could better understand the budget challenges. But Schwartz said the county was more interested in suing the school system for requested financial data UCPS was already working feverishly to provide.

The county was willing to give UCPS officials more time to examine the Union County financial information schools requested last week, Coto said. But UCPS did not want to extend the deadline. School officials said the county canceled earlier mediation meetings that they should have attended.

“They had postponed this until July 31,” Yercheck said. “We should have been working together on this all along.”

School officials also did not explain where the county miscalculated state funds.

“From our meeting, the indication that we got today was they didn’t agree with our numbers,” Coto said. “We offered them a chance to come together as a group and look for wherever we might have gotten our numbers wrong, but they didn’t take us up on these multiple offers.”

School officials made a settlement offer at the first mediation meeting, but the county did not accept it. Nor did the county offer a formal counter offer.

“Our counter offer had more to do with process in the future to hopefully avoid mediation in the future,” Coto said.

But the county would not entertain compromises that UCPS could agree to. In response, the battle goes to Union County Civil Court to be decided by a jury.

“Who better to make decisions about the future of the county than twelve people who live here?” Schwartz said.

The lawsuit could be heard in court as early as Monday, Schwartz said. An official court date could be announced by the end of the week.