County claims ignorance in PR video

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 03:54 PM

Union County released a video Friday featuring its administrators discussing the settlement offer extended to Union County Public Schools earlier this week.

Meg McElwain, owner of Magnolia Marketing which Union County hired last week to help handle media questions amid a criminal investigation involving a county social worker, hosted the discussion. It included Commission Chair Frank Aikmus, County Manager Cindy Coto and Finance Director Jeff Yates.

The video is the first in a series of "Union County Conversations" that will inform residents about the county and its services.

The discussion focused on the $11 million settlement offer commissioners made to UCPS during their Monday meeting.

"I think that the offer...while it's not $91 million, but what it is it provides the $9.4 million that was disclosed during the trial that there were roofing needs, leaking roofs," Aikmus said.

Aikmus, Coto and Yates explained that the county cannot simply pay the $91 million awarded to UCPS by a jury in October. The nine-week "lawsuit against the taxpayers" brought by the school board resulted in a verdict that was ten times higher than the amount of money UCPS requested in this year's budget, Aikmus said. Testimony was based on the county's 2012 audited dollar amounts, Coto said, which was a snapshot of a continually fluctuating balance. County revenue does not arrive as a total lump sum, Yates said. Instead, the county must keep some liquid assets to pay bills when they come due, not later when all taxes are collected.

McElwain then asked why the relationship between the county and school board became so strained. Aikmus attributed it to a change of leadership on the school board, miscommunication and personality differences.

"I think we all took for granted that there was a strong communication between the liaisons and with the new personalities on both boards, I just think that it created the not-so-perfect storm," Aikmus said. "Instead of getting both boards together, we relied on that liason format to get our communication and I think it wasn't always truly communicated back and forth what our true feelings really were.

Former BOCC Chairman Jerry Simpson offered three dates that commissioners were willing to meet with the school board to begin working on next year's budget. But those meetings did not happen and Aikmus said he had not heard from the school board about prospective meeting dates. Nor had his efforts to mend the relationship between both boards been successful.

"I made some comments, probably earlier this year, that may have been construed, in fact were construed or considered to be offensive by the superintended, Dr. Ellis," Aikmus said.

During the June 17, after delaying vote on the 2013-2014 county budget following a public outcry in support of higher school funding, commissioners approved an amended version. Commissioners earlier resisted giving UCPS the $8.3 million it requested for capital projects because school board members did not provide enough justification for the expense. The county approved only $3 million of the total request.

Aikmus amended the budget to give UCPS an additional $1 million for technology upgrades provided school officials meet with Coto. In exchange, UCPS officials would agree to accept only $2 million in capital funding for the following fiscal year.

After the vote, Aikmus said the board saved taxpayers from a "tax-and-spend school board."

"My mother would be proud of the final statement I'll make because she was a teacher for 38 years. Teachers I applaud you for continuing to work in an environment where your administration sees everything but you as a priority," Aikmus said June 17.

Six months later, Aikmus apologized for the remark.

"I have sent her a personal email, for what she considered to be offensive and let her know, you know, that this was kind of an olive branch," Aikmus said. "I wanted to put this behind us. I want the two boards to start communicating because truly the issue that we are not communicating."

McElwain praised Aikmus for apologizing.

This week's settlement offer made by Simpson came after many parents spoke at commissioners meetings, Aikmus said. Parents, teachers and UCPS employees have spoken about leaking roofs at several meetings this year, especially before commissioners approved their current budget. But hearing from the many people who feared for their children's safety drove home the real need for capital improvement, Aikmus said.

"I can honestly tell you I did not know about those leaking roofs until the course of the trial," he said. "Could I have gone back and looked at the schools' capital plan? I suppose I could. And again, I relied on the communication of the school board and what we were hearing from our liasions and that never came up.

"But I feel confident that, had any of the five commissioners known truly what those needs were, we would have addressed those immediately, we wouldn't be having this conversation now," Aikmus said.