County, UCPS screen jurors for funding trail

Aug. 13, 2013 @ 03:47 PM

After failed budget talks and no agreement during mediation, Union County Public School took its demand for more Union County funding to court this week.

County and school officials have been at odds over local funding. Early this year, county leaders proposed a funding formula for school operations they said was sustainable under the current property tax rate. They also created a schedule for funding about $8 million in school capital needs.

The funding formula was passed by the Union County Board of Commissioners before UCPS Board of Education members publicly objected to the amount and the capital improvement funding.

Though people on both sides said they wanted to see some kind of agreement happen, neither side relented their demands. In June, UCPS officially began mediation against the county.

The Aug. 1 deadline for an agreement came and went. Union County officials did not accept the settlement offer made by the schools. Nor did schools accept the county’s offer to provide more capital now for less in coming years to perform required technology upgrades. County officials also offered to drop the restrictions in operations funding commissioners approved earlier.

UCPS’s Raleigh-based attorney Richard Schwartz filed a lawsuit against the county earlier this month.

Tuesday saw little action other than jury selection. Schwartz began questioning potential jurors. Union County attorney Ligon Bundy objected a few times when Schwartz pressed potential jurors about how much money they were comfortable awarding UCPS is he successfully argued its case. Superior Court Judge Erwin Spainhour sustained most objections but overruled on a few points.  

“Just to clarify,” one potential juror said. “Is this for the whole amount they’re asking for or is this a complete white board?”

“It’s a white board as far as I’m concerned,” Spainhour said.

County and school officials observed from the courtroom audience. County Manager Cindy Coto and Finance Director Jeff Yates were there, as were Commission Chairman Jerry Simpson, and Commissioners Todd Johnson and Richard Helms. UCPS Superintendent Mary Ellis sat with Schwartz in front of the jury. UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck watched from a few feet away.

Attorneys took turns asking potential jurors about any experiences or relationships that would bias their decision. That morning, the twelve men and women ranged from a retired teacher, a builder, several small-business owners, an international business expert who lived in London before moving to the area and a recent graduate. Most reported having only basic understanding about the reasons for the lawsuit. They were a mix of natives and transplants. None stated they had children in UCPS currently. Most owned property in the county.

Schwartz asked if any had problems with the state law requiring counties be responsible for building and maintaining facilities.

One potential juror said he paid triple the school tax in New York, and thought the amount in Union County was reasonable.

“And if the tax rate tripled here, I guess I’d work more to pay it,” he said.

“But we’re not talking about taxes here,” Schwartz said quickly. “I’m just asking about the state law.”

Schwartz asked if anyone knew any elected officials or attorneys participating in the trial. One potential juror stated that Bundy represented him in a case last year.

“Am I excused?” the man said.

“It depends,” Schwartz said. He asked if the man could separate his decision from any allegiance he felt toward Bundy. The man said he did not think he could. The judge asked the same question and the man’s answer was the same.

Schwartz asked Spainhour to excuse the man when Bundy interrupted.

“Can I ask a few questions real quick?” Bundy said.

“No. I’m about to excuse him,” Spainhour said.

Jury selection continued after the court broke for lunch. Opening arguments and testimony will follow final seating of jurors in Union County Superior Court.