Schools, county lay out funding case
The county and board of education attorneys delivered their opening statements to the jury Friday.
“This case is not against people,” Board of Education Attorney Richard Schwartz said. “It’s not a lawsuit against the citizens and residents of Union County.”
He said it was the opposite, a lawsuit for the citizens to protect their investment in facilities and in their children.
Schwartz laid out their case, saying they would be presenting evidence about growth, maintenance and proving that the county has not provided adequate support for the school as its costs and obligations go up while its funding goes down.
He told the jury the budget presented this year was not adequate to meet their needs, but a “bare bones” budget, put together to try to cooperate with the county commissioners.
He said there has been a lot of “deferred maintenance” due to budget constraints and now many of the problems are worse.
“You’re going to hear a lot of testimony about roofs,” Schwartz said. He added that the school system is responsible for just less than 6 million square feet of roofs.
“They’re expensive to keep up. They’re expensive to maintain,” Schwartz said.
He said the school system asked for $8.3 million and received $3 million.
“We didn’t ask for enough,” Schwartz said. “Not by a longshot.”
Schwartz said they will also talk about the state and federal policies the school system must adhere to. The state constitution requires that each student receive a “sound, basic education” as defined by the courts.
The courts defined a Level 3 on end of course and end of grade exams to meet the standard. A three is considered proficient.
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“We’re not meeting that standard for too many of our kids,” Schwartz said.
Schwartz said the students entering Kindergarten at the end of the month are the class of 2025. They are the second generation of students to be educated entirely in the 21st century.
“We’re preparing students for a world that doesn’t exist,” Schwartz said. “We’re not educating for the past, (we’re) educating for a world we can’t imagine.”
Schwartz said the school’s budgeting practices are transparent, audited and respected. He emphasized to the jury that the school is a large operation and the budget is complicated.
“We’re not the pigs at the trough of county government,” he said.
“Nobody’s going to try to fool you,” he said. “It’s just complicated.”
Schwartz said they will prove that the school needs more money to maintain its current system, that as good as the school system is it is not meeting the needs for every child, that state standards and expectations are very high and going up, that people are moving to Union County for the schools and more are coming every day, that the county funds are inadequate and that the county has ample funds in its reserves.
“That’s what our evidence will show and we’re going to be asking you for a big number,” Schwartz said.
Ligon Bundy, the attorney for the Union County Board of Commissioners then laid out its case.
Bundy told the jury that the burden of proof is entirely on the board of education. It has to prove its case for funding. He said the county does not technically even have to provide evidence.
Bundy wanted to make clear that the Union County Board of Commissioners agrees that Union County Public Schools provides a “wonderful” education and agrees that the teachers and employees do a wonderful job.
He said the budget for this year, from all funding sources, is about $344 million.
“The county does not agree that the board of education needs $334 million to run the school system,” Bundy said.
He also noted that this trial is about the current budget for 2013-2014, not any future budgets.
Bundy asked the jury to pay close attention to state requirements and to keep in mind that the county commissioners have the right to supplement the local education system. The commissioners have in the past given local funds to supplement, but they cannot be ordered to give more money to supplement the system because it is at their discretion.
Bundy recalled a potential juror who said he did not mind “throwing more money” at the schools.
“The Union County Board of County Commissioners has a problem ‘throwing money’ at anything,” Bundy said.
He said the county contends that the board of education and UCPS administrators have not been “good stewards” of the taxpayer dollars. He clarified that they have no problem with the teachers, but problems with decisions that have been made by administration and the board.
Bundy said evidence will show that the board of education has allowed buildings to go into disrepair and that it had been told for years that there were problems with roofs, but had not done anything.
“(It spent) millions of dollars for education not required by state and neglected buildings,” Bundy said.
He said the county will show that UCPS is top-heavy with administrators in Central Office and in schools. He said the county believes that if the board of education would review its administrative staff and make cuts, it could cover its needs and would not need additional funds.
The trial will resume on Monday at 9:30 a.m.