Union County and its school board have tentatively agreed on a budget this year. That may not seem like a big deal, but last year a budget dispute between the two led to a court battle. A new local law may have helped them reach consensus faster.
This time last year the school board brought in a mediator to try to get more money from the county. That ended up failing and the board sued the county. A jury found the county owed the school district $91 million.
“I think it would be fair to say that we worked better this year with each other,” says school board chairman Richard Yercheck.
“It’s a compromise budget, so they’re coming up a little more from where they would want to be and we’re coming down a little more than where we wanted to be and we’re going to compromise at this level.”
The budget both sides have agreed on would give the district $87 million to operate schools and another $19.5 million to finish repairing roofs and make sure buildings are ADA compliant. If county commissioners don’t make any cuts, issue new general obligation bonds, or dip into reserves, the property tax rate would go up 14 percent.
County Commission Vice Chairman Jerry Simpson agrees relations between the commission and school board are better.
“You agree to disagree and agree to move forward together to try to come to some kind of compromise or consensus such that everyone’s critical needs are met,” says Simpson.
But that goodwill didn’t stop commissioners from asking State Senator Tommy Tucker of Union County to help things along. He was willing.
“Union County had been through a legal exercise with a lawsuit that had cost the county close to $2 million dollars for it to sue itself. The dollars come out of the same pot and I just thought that was a bit much,” says Tucker.
To ensure that doesn’t happen again in the near future, Tucker introduced a local bill that temporarily takes away the school board’s ability to sue the county commission over funding.
“It’ll be a cooling off period for two years so that both boards can set aside any kind of personal issues that it may have and go ahead and work together through the normal budget process without mediation and without attorneys to develop a long term strategy and have that help of a fourteen board appointed by the school board and the county commission,” explains Tucker.
The bill does give the district some protection. As part of the deal, commissioners can’t give schools less than what they agreed on for the coming fiscal year.
Tucker says commissioners in Gaston and Nash counties worried their school boards were considering lawsuits and asked to be added to the bill. The General Assembly passed it last week.
“The board of education didn’t ask for this and doesn’t support it, so that’s the legislature fiddling in local politics,” says school board chairman Yercheck.
Meanwhile, the county will continue to fight the $91 million verdict in the lawsuit over last year’s budget.