Commissioners offer $11.2 million to settle school funding dispute

Dec. 03, 2013 @ 05:03 PM

The Union County Board of County Commissioners extended a second settlement offer to the Union County Board of Education Monday night. 

Over the summer, the school board took the county commission to court after the mediation process over the 2013-2014 budget failed. After a 9-week trial, a jury awarded the school system about $91 million.

According to the offer, the commissioners would borrow $9.4 million and appropriate the amount to the capital outlay fund for 2013-2014 to be used on the roofs identified during the trial by roofing specialist Nelson Hall as being in need of repair or replacement. The sum is in addition to the $5.4 million appropriated in October. 

In addition, the commissioners would appropriate about $1.8 million to the local current expense fund for this year to increase the classroom teacher’s supplement. The increase would be on average $561 and would bring Union County’s teacher supplement up to the state average, according to the offer. 

The commissioners also encouraged the board of education to use the “true-up” payment of $761,451 appropriated to the local current expense fund in November to provide salary increases to non-classified employees. The offer also states that each party would bear its own costs and expense of litigation. 

The deadline for the offer is noon on Friday. In order to document the settlement, both boards would have to sign a settlement document or consent order, to be approved by the Superior Court, in order to drop the appeal, according to the offer. 

Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said they will consider the offer. 

“We’re going to consider it because it was put forth and our board will get together and consider their offer and then we will respond,” Yercheck said. 

The full board does not meet again until Dec. 10. 

Former Chairman and newly-elected Vice Chairman Jerry Simpson spoke Monday night when presenting the settlement offer, reflecting on his time as chairman and on the budget process this year. 

“As I learned and as Chairman (Frank) Aikmus will learn, there will be what I call missed opportunities, which when you view them in retrospect you wish you had handled...the issue a little differently,” Simpson said. “We began the 2013-2014 budget process with some significant changes in dynamics, we had two new county commissioners, four new school board members, a new school board chair and a new superintendent. Looking back, this was a little bit of a formula for miscommunication and turf wars and I should, as chairman, have recognized it early on and been more adamant about getting the entire boards of both bodies to sit down together. For that, I apologize.”

Simpson said the real issue was that the board of education did not trust the commissioners to deliver funding and the county commissioners did not trust the school board to use the funding wisely. He noted that this was the fourth time the school board had entered mediation, ranking first in the state in times the board of education has entered mediation. 

“This year marked the fourth time and for me it was the charm, as I believed the only way to a solution was mediation and ultimately court, get it all out on the table,” Simpson said. “It was my belief then and now that the statute allowing school boards to sue boards of commissioners was intended to end the gridlock over the current budget differences. Had I known that it would be a blank check to cover the sins of all the past boards of education and county commission boards, I would certainly have taken pause.” 

Simpson said he was “less than tactful” with his comments after the trial with regard to the jury decision and the award. He said he in no way meant to disparage any individual juror, their service or their sacrifice. However, he said, he stands by his decision to support the appeal.

“Juries, through no fault of their own, can get it wrong. The appeal process is just as much a right afforded by the Constitution as is the right to trial by jury,” Simpson said. “In my opinion...what the court did in this case was give de facto taxing authority to the school board. Now in some states, that’s allowed, and it may be time to do so in North Carolina. But that is a decision by the legislature, not the courts.” 

Newly-elected Chairman Frank Aikmus discussed the offer at the end of the Monday night meeting. With regard to the teacher supplement, he reminded the crowd that teacher salary is a state function.

“I’ll remind you that that is a state function. Teacher raises are a state function. Where are your legislators on giving a raise? Maybe they don’t see the value in your teachers, but we do. We’ve heard your request for the teachers to have a raise and we’re increasing the local supplement by $561 to every teacher across the board,” Aikmus said. 

“I say all that because one thing that I have not heard is that any penny of that $91 million was going to go to a teacher raise,” Aikmus said Monday night. “I heard that the non-classified (employees) would get 3 percent. Great. They deserve it. The folks in the classroom, I never heard one mention that they would get one penny of that 91 million dollars.” 

“Folks the things that you’ve outlined over these last few weeks don’t equate to $91 million, they don’t equate to $91 million that we as Union County, we do not have...as Commissioner (Jonathan) Thomas said, if it were as easy as releasing the funds it would have been done, but that’s not the case we find ourselves in,” Aikmus said. 

Aikmus said what he heard in Vice Chairman Simpson’s offer was that they could address the needs of the school system with $11 million. 

“Would you like to have 91, absolutely you would and we’d love to give you 91 million if we had it,” Aikmus said. “But we don’t have it.” 

“I hope sincerely that the board of education will at least consider the offer...to fix the roofs, give the teachers a raise, give the non-classified folks a raise and let’s move this county forward in the right direction. I don’t want to tell you you’re wasting your time coming here to ask me to drop an appeal, but I can tell you that everything that you have presented to me I have heard, we have heard, Chairman Simpson has addressed and I’m fully prepared to move this forward and move on down the road,” Aikmus said.