E-mails reveal confusion about school budget deal

Jul. 13, 2013 @ 04:17 PM

Emails between school and county officials early in the budgeting process revealed the endeavor was plagued with confusion and misunderstanding on both sides.

Union County Finance Director Jeff Yates began communicating with Union County Public Schools Finance Director Dan Karpinski about the funding formula and capital plan as early as November 2012. Then, the basic language of the funding formula was in writing, but the cents out of the property tax rate was still undecided.

In December, Yates wrote Karpinski about a database the finance department developed for capital improvement projects. He invited Karpinski to attend staff training to teach UCPS staff how to input data on school projects into the database. Assistant Superintendent Mike Webb accepted the training invitation.

On January 25, 2013, County Manager Cindy Coto requested of UCPS Superintendent Mary Ellis a meeting between Commission Chairman Jerry Simpson, herself, Yates, Ellis, Karpinski and school board liaisons. UCPSBOE Attorney Michele Morris expressed concern that such a meeting would fall under the state’s open meetings laws.

“This is where I get concerned,” Morris wrote to Ellis on February 4. “The law provides that all committees (standing or ad hoc) are subject to the open Meetings law. Would this not be considered an ad hoc committee? I guess we could get by it if, if there is no intent for this group to perform an advisory function.”

When Ellis communicated these concerns to Coto, County Staff Attorney Jeff Crook weighed in with his legal opinion that such an assembly of staff members and elected officials from both bodies does not constitute an organized committee. He repeated the opinion of a University of North Carolina School of Government professor who noted that groups needed some basic amount of structure to fall under open meetings law.

“Please understand that I am not trying to play in your sandbox, and am only sending this information to you,” Coto wrote Ellis on February 5.

The two groups met over lunch on February 15. A few emails were traded between Yates and Karpinski about tax collection rates and what information would be discussed at a February 28 work session with commissioners. Coto sent Ellis a copy of the presentation a day before the work session.

County manager and superintendent were scheduled to meet March 6 to discuss the funding policy before the commissioners voted on it on March 18. When Ellis canceled the meeting, Coto wrote a March 5 email expressing worry and frustration.

“I fear that we are not communicating well,” Coto wrote.

She went on to say that, based on the Feb. 15 discussion, she understood that UCPS would provide a funding formula number after a few meetings and she could present the completed formula to commissioners.

“So from where I am sitting I thought we would have an answer by tomorrow as to the school’s funding formula number so that we could proceed with presenting to the BCC for consideration on March 18,” Coto wrote.

She later stated she started this process hoping for more collaboration between schools and the county. But it appeared to her that UCPS would develop its budget and present it to the commission as it had every other year. For the sake of planning the county budget, Coto wrote that school funding, which takes up 60 percent of the county budget, could not be left blank as the county built its budget.

“I haven’t reviewed the statutes and therefore won’t play attorney, but I do believe we have the unilateral right to allocate a funding level to the schools as long as it provides for sufficient funding for free public schools,” Coto wrote.

Ellis responded the same day, saying UCPSBOE would have the capital budget for the following year on March 6 after vetting by the school board. The UCPS budget would follow on May 15, which is a month earlier than what state law requires.

Early the following morning, Ellis wrote to Coto again, expressing confusion over what was discussed at the Feb. 15 meeting and what was expected from her office.

“I really thought that our Board would have some input into the amount of cents regarding the formula,” Ellis wrote. “I truly had no idea that the BOCC would set it until we had provided input as to the system’s needs.”

There was some discussion of the number of cents on the property tax rate dedicated to schools during the Feb. 15 meeting, but no final number.

“I realize now that you left our Feb. meeting thinking that our Board is fine with a formula, and I think they are. The rub is that they believe they can/could have some input into the number or at least discussion with the BOCC members. Ergo, we are here,” Ellis wrote.

Also on March 6, Karpinsi sent Yates the UCPS capital outlay proposal for the following fiscal year. But Yates responded there was not enough detail and no justification for the capital requested. Plus it was a single year instead of the 6 year plan the county requested.

On March 8, Karpinski asked Yates a few questions, one being about the year-end true-up of the funding formula. On March 11, Yates contacted Karpinski about the capital outlay plan again. He asked UCPS to prioritize projects, questioned whether some technology projects were truly capital expenditures and requested UCSP staff begin uploading data into the database.

On March 11, Coto wrote to Ellis, inviting her and UCPSBOE members to a public information session on the school funding changes on March 18. Coto also answered Ellis’s earlier question about the county’s authority to decide a funding amount before receiving the school system’s budget.

“The number (of cents) plugged into the funding formula will be for budget development purposes,” Coto wrote. “That is, the County cannot make any final decision regarding funding , including that for the schools, is not made until the budget ordinance is adopted which will probably not occur until June.”

On March 11, Ellis wrote Coto, stating she stood behind the school board’s capital request.

“The projects have been deemed as top priority as vetted by the Facilities and Finance Committees (rated as ‘must have’ or #1),” Ellis wrote.

Coto sent Ellis a letter on March 21 with the official version of the school funding policy attached.

“We have received the request you have provided, however, given the adopted Board policy, I do not feel that I can include the projects in the proposed CIP,” Coto wrote. “If you will provide the projects in accordance with the policy and the required information, the request will be included in the CIP for discussion.”

In the same letter, Coto thanks Ellis and three UCPSBOE members for attending the public information meeting.

Several emails sent March 22 confirmed UCPS input capital needs into the county database, but the information provided lacked the level of detail county officials wanted.

“The Union County Public Schools’ Board of Education will voted on the Facilities Committee’s recommendation at our May 7, 2013 meeting,” Ellis wrote to county officials March 28. “It will then be input into your required formula in your system.

“Per our General Counsel, we believe this meets all statutory requirements,” Ellis wrote.

In response to a March 26 email from Ellis to Yates that was not included in the packet, Coto stated she was glad to know school officials were still working on years two through six of the capital improvement plan. She went on to explain that, because the county did not receive the full capital plan, county staff broke down UCPS requests for the following year into a three-year plan. The commission was scheduled to adopt the county’s version of the plan on May 6.

“After UCPS submits their six year CIP it will be presented to the Board of County Commissioners for their information and action should they determine they wish to modify the CIP,” Coto wrote.  

Ellis replied April 2.

“In the February 15, 2013 meeting with Mr. Jeff Yates, Mr. Jerry Simpson, Mr. Richard Yercheck, Mr. Dan Karpinski, you and me, I relayed that we would be working on Years Two-Six but they would need to be submitted later as this was the first we had discussed it with you,” Ellis wrote. “Mr. Yates even noted that he would be willing to work with us on a later date as we could not have all six years completed by early March.”

The capital projects UCPS provided were just for the following year, she wrote. It was not meant to be broken up over several years, as was stated by the schools’ facilities committee.

“Finally I remain concerned that you are making decisions on school issues prior to receiving relevant information on the school system’s request, which again I reiterate, will be delivered  to you prior to all statutory deadlines,” Ellis wrote.

Yates asked Karpinski April 15 to submit the budget as approved by the UCPSBOE the day before, but requested certain expenses be broken out into specific needs.

On April 17, Simpson sent Yercheck a letter about transparency and accountability. Simpson included five specific questions to the school board for a joint work session on May 15. Commissioner Richard Helms asked for a breakdown of several budget line items on April 22. Yercheck replied, noting the five questions and promised to do research before the work session.

Simpson clarified that commissioners would likely be asking more than just those five questions at the meeting.

Webb sent the county the school’s approved capital plan for years two through six to Yates on May 8.

“Dr. Webb, because we are completing our Budget document today, and will not have time to format and distill years 2-6 for the Commission, I would like to use the documents provided to your board to include in our document as an appendix,” Yates wrote on May 10.

The final included emails addressed Commissioner Helms’ request for more budget detail for $69 million budgeted for leadership and support services sent May 14.