Superintendent called to testify

Sep. 06, 2013 @ 11:33 AM

Union County Public Schools Superintendent Mary Ellis was called to testify Tuesday afternoon in the trial between the Union County Board of Education and the Union County Board of County Commissioners. 

Board Attorney Richard Schwartz asked Ellis about the growth the schools have experienced. Ellis said that while the school enrollment is not final and is an ever-changing number, their enrollment is currently higher than the state’s projection. 

The county funding formula was also discussed. Ellis talked about the meeting she and County Manager Cindy Coto had with others on Feb. 15. 

Ellis said that she was handed a worksheet and had to read it a few times.

“I’m a teacher and I was trying to make the math work,” Ellis said. She noted that the math on the sheet did not work. 

She added that she wished she had “kept her mouth shut” because the amount of pennies on the worksheet with the incorrect math was higher than the corrected amount. 

The Feb. 15 meeting was the first time she had laid eyes on the formula, she testified. She said she knew there was more discussion between Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck and people in the county. She said Yercheck wanted them to go to 42 pennies, which they felt was too high and he wanted to meet somewhere in the middle. 

Schwartz asked Ellis about an e-mail from Coto on Feb. 27. The e-mail had a working draft of the budget formula. Ellis said that as best she could remember, that was the first time she had seen it is a draft. 

I found it to be “incredulous” that they could vote on a formula without knowing about our needs, Ellis said. 

Ellis asked if they could consider holding off on the vote until the finance committee met. 

Coto said in her e-mail that she thought they would have the numbers from the board of education. The school system had received their state allotment in late February, but not their federal allotment. Coto also wrote in her e-mail that she would talk to the chair and the vice-chair about holding the vote. 

Ellis disagreed with the press statement released by the County on March 19 saying the boards had worked together on the formula. 

Schwartz also asked about the maintenance take-home vehicles, an issue that pre-dated Ellis’ tenure as superintendent. 

One of the issues from the 2012 budget session was vehicles being taken home by school maintenance workers instead of being parked at a central location. 

Ellis said she believed the school had been beaten up in the press through letters to the editor over the vehicles. She and Assistant Superintendent of Instructional Technology and Operations Mike Webb planned a pilot where some groups would park their vehicles on Venus Street and others would continue taking their vehicles home. 

Ellis said they stopped the pilot after about four months because “we were bleeding money.” 

Their study determined it was more efficient to allow maintenance workers to take vehicles home. 

Ellis said she met with Coto to discuss the pilot and their findings. She offered to send out releases to both boards, Coto declined, but approved a quote for a release to the school board. 

Ellis said she and Coto have a good working relationship and she did not want to “sandbag” her by sending a release about the pilot without her knowledge.

Union County Attorney Ligon Bundy cross examined Ellis Wednesday afternoon. He presented her with a list of the district’s academic accomplishments published on the UCPS website.

It ranked highest of 34 large school districts in graduation rates during the 2011-2012 school year. It ranked second among the state’s 60 largest school districts for meeting federal No Child Left Behind standards. UCPS ACT and SAT scores for 2012 were well above national and state averages. It had 20 Schools of Excellence, 17 Schools of Distinction, six schools of progress and no Low-Perfoming schools. The class of 2012 was awarded $87.6 million in scholarships.

Bundy pressed her on the high average UCPS test scores compared to state and federal averages. Ellis said the differences were significant, but not large enough to be “life-changing.”

“Dr. Ellis, are you not saying Union County Public Schools are not outstanding?” Bundy said.

“Sir, I am very proud of our schools. Our teachers have worked hard, our support staff, our parents, but we’re not where we need to be,” Ellis said.

The SAT scores, for example, can vary by hundreds of points when students take the test more than once. And not all students take the SAT, just those planning to go to college, Ellis said.

“Let’s cut to the chase,” Bundy said. “What public school system in North Carolina is better than Union County Public Schools?”

Ellis asked what criteria Bundy wanted her to compare districts with. Bundy replied that he wanted her opinion as the UCPS superintendent about which district was superior to her own and why.

After several minutes of thought, Ellis said she does not compare her district to others, but focuses on improving UCPS.

“I don’t worry too much about other school systems. I worry about us because I know us, warts and all,” Ellis said. “I don’t know other school systems warts and all.”

Bundy asked Ellis if she was not proud that her district graduates nine out of every ten students enrolled.

“They’re certainly statistics in which we take pride, but we’ve got to remember that we’re not just teaching 90 percent,” Ellis said. “We have 100 percent of children.”

Ellis said she hears from parents every day. They all want the very best for their children.

“And that’s ten out of ten parents,” she said. “That’s not nine out of ten parents that want the best for their children.”

Bundy then asked Ellis about the 1997 Leandro v. State court battle that reaffirmed equalization of school funding. A family successfully sued the state, arguing that there was not enough local tax revenue to provide local students an education comparable to the education provided to students in higher-wealth areas.

Ellis testified under direct questioning about the case earlier in the day, but did not answer when Bundy asked her to explain the results of the court ruling and subsequent litigation that branched from the Leandro case. Since she was not an attorney, Ellis said she followed the court cases as a layman, and could not interpret the court decision on a legal level.

He presented the court with excerpts of the state constitution concerning the right to a free and uniform education for all residents. It also charged with raising tax revenue to provide students a sufficient education.

After having Ellis read from the constitution, he asked her what the excerpt meant. Schwartz objected, saying Ellis could not be required to interpret the constitution. Spainhour told Bundy to question Ellis from his seat on the other side of the courtroom instead of looking over her shoulder.

Bundy asked Ellis to read another excerpt that stated that local governments were obliged to use its revenue to supplement school funding. Bundy asked if the Union County Board of Commissioners was the local government in the current case.

Schwartz again objected.

“She being asked to interpret what it says instead of reading what it says,” Schwartz said.

Again, Bundy asked if Ellis followed the Leandro case because it was of interest to educators. In the supreme court’s deliberation of the case, a uniform education was discussed at length. He asked if she was familiar with the Hoke County Board of Education lawsuit. When she said no, he asked her to read from the court’s decision when Spainhour interrupted.

“Are you going to ask her for a legal interpretation of these cases?” Spainhour said. “She’s got a Ph.d, but she’s not a lawyer.”

“I understand. But she is the superintendent of the sixth largest school system in the state,” Bundy said.

“Yes, but you can’t ask her legal opinion about something,” Spainhour said.

Ellis read from the Hoke County court decision where the judge stated that “an education that does not serve in preparing students to participate and compete in the society in which they live and work” was not the uniform education guaranteed by the state constitution.

Bundy called Ellis’s attention to the excerpt stating that every child be given “the opportunity for a sound education.”

“Isn’t that what Union County Public Schools is offering its children? An opportunity for a sound, basic education?” Bundy said.

An English teacher would interpret usage of the word “an” to mean a single opportunity, Ellis said.

“I don’t believe that, because we have compulsory attendance, that we want kids to have an opportunity and then them not get it and us not work with them anymore,” Ellis said.

“Are you telling the jury that you believe the constitution requires a school system to offer a child one day’s opportunity for an education?” Bundy said. “Is that the way you’re reading this?”

“Sir, I’m not interpreting the state constitution,” Ellis said. “I am not equipped to do so. You asked me to read this and it says guarantee every child of this state an opportunity. That’s what I read verbatim.”

The question was simple, Bundy said.

“Isn’t it your understanding that it’s your obligation as an educator to provide the children with an opportunity to learn, if they so choose...And the state is to provide a uniform system of public schools to provide all the children of the state the opportunity to learn and to better themselves, isn’t that right?” he said.

“All children,” she said.

“All children, you’re right,” Bundy said. “Disadvantaged children, gifted children, all children to have the opportunity to become commensurate with their abilities, isn’t that right?”

And before Ellis could answer, Schwartz objected, Spainhour upheld the objection and arguments closed for the day.