County to discuss giving UCPS $5.3 million

Oct. 19, 2013 @ 03:47 PM

Some might say it's too little too late.

Monday, the Union County Board of Education will discuss granting Union County Public Schools the full capital funding request for the current year.

This spring, commissioners insisted the county could not allocate the entire $8.3 million school officials said was needed for repairs this year. Only $3 million was allocated. Just before approving the county's budget, commissioners voted to give schools $4 million this year in exchange for $2 million in capital funds the following fiscal year.

School officials said the county wanted a prioritized list of projects for this year. The idea was to create a multi-year school capital projects plan with the county. Schools first submitted $8.3 million for 2014 needs. Timing and misunderstanding conspired to have county officials to break up the $8.3 million into a three-year funding plan. School officials argued that the full amount was needed for the most immediate capital needs. The county refused.

UCPS and the county commissioners entered mediation, but there was no deal reached. UCPS filed a lawsuit against the county. Last week, after a two-month trial, a jury awarded UCPS $91 million for operations and capital needs.

A week later, the county announced its intent to appeal. It also added an agenda item to allocate the remaining $5.3 million to the schools. There is also a formal invitation that the two boards start cultivating a good professional relationship.

For now, it is simply an agenda item and not a certainty, UCPS's attorney Richard Schwartz said.

"I find the timing of this gesture especially interesting," he said.

It is the first indication from Union County government that its officials are interested in working with the school board. UCPS officials state they offered the county a settlement the first day of mediation but got no response. After a month of failed meetings, the county gave the schools an "absurd response."

The unwillingness to talk to the school board continued in the courtroom, he said.

"Every single day of the trial until the day before the verdict, my co-council Brian Shaw approached the county with an offer to settle. They said we should dismiss the case. There was no suggestion they wanted to settle. We got nothing but rejection," Schwartz said. "This is after the school board did everything possible to avoid court and to avoid filing a lawsuit."

The county plans to appeal, but has not cited on what grounds. BOCC Chairman Jerry Simpson's statement said only that the county did not have the available funds to pay the verdict.

"Once again the county claims the money isn't there," Schwartz said. "Clearly it is, because their expert witness said so on the stand during the trial. And if it's truly not there, they've got some explaining to do to the people of Union County."

In the last days of the trial, county attorney Ligon Bundy called accountant Debbie Goode to testify about county and school funds. On the stand, she stated the county had $230 million in available funds that it could spend as it wished, Schwartz said.

He does not believe Simpson's claim that the money is not there.

"And if they don't have it then they have some explaining to do," he said.

After ignoring settlement offers from UCPS, the county now sees the school's requested amount as reasonable.

"We're disappointed they're not accepting the verdict of 12 residents of Union County who spent nine weeks of their time listing to arguments and who made a careful informed decision. But they don't like that decision," Schwartz said. "I think they put their trust in the jury believing that the jury would rule in their favor. But they didn't. And now the county wants to go back and work with the schools."

Bundy was out of the office Friday. Several attempts were made to contact Simpson. He did not respond.