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Union County schools budget brings heated words but no action in special meeting

The Union County school board spent two hours in a special meeting Tuesday making the case that the county’s education budget is inadequate and based on faulty information. But the board took no action to force a review of the vote.

Board Chair Melissa Merrell said before the meeting the district has retained outside legal counsel. The board met with lawyers in closed session before the two-hour public meeting.

That meeting included a detailed rebuttal of statements made by commissioners’ Chair Dennis Rape, and criticism of the commissioners’ 3-2 vote.

“It almost feels like sabotage,” Merrell said. “It’s almost like they have decided to completely burn us down.”

“I am ashamed that our county officials (are) making decisions on funding with incorrect assumptions,” said board member Joseph Morreales.

But there was no public discussion of a mediation process that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools used last year to fight for more county funding. CMS prevailed, getting $11 million more than commissioners initially approved and overriding a county plan to withhold $56 million until CMS met county demands.

That process is supposed to start with a joint school board/county meeting within seven days of the budget vote.

Tensions build

Merrell told colleagues Tuesday problems started in early April, when school board leaders tried unsuccessfully to line up a joint meeting to discuss the board’s budget request.

“They declined our request for a joint meeting,” she said. “We usually have two or three during the budget process.”

Rape, who could not be reached for comment Tuesday, posted a long Facebook commentary about the school board budget on June 2. It refers to unspent capital money, accuses the board of “SUCH A MISMANAGEMENT OF THE PUBLIC'S MONEY” and concludes with “JUST REMEMBER THIS, IT IS YOUR MONEY WE ARE PROTECTING, NOT OURS. MAY GOD HAVE MERCY ON THIS COUNTY.”

Union County Commissioners Chair Dennis Rape threatens to have school board member Gary Sides removed from the meeting during the June 13 budget vote.
Union County Commissioners Chair Dennis Rape threatens to have school board member Gary Sides removed from the meeting during the June 13 budget vote.

On June 13, commissioners held a special meeting to approve the county budget. Vice Chair David Williams, Richard Helms and Jerry Simpson voted for a budget that gives the school system $116.5 million in operating money for the coming year. That’s up about $5 million over this year, but it’s $7.5 million less than the school board asked for.

Rape and Stony Rushing voted no. In a video clip played at the school board meeting, Rape says he was “appalled to find out about the unallocated fund balance of $29.2 million” in the school district’s budget.

“We’ve always funded what you need and it appears we’ve overfunded,” Rape said.

School board member Gary Sides, who was at that meeting, calls out from the audience to argue with Rape, and Rape threatens to have Sides removed.

Explaining the numbers

In a presentation Tuesday, school board Vice Chair Kathy Heintel said after school bonds are approved the county controls the money until the school system submits invoices for the work. Designing projects, getting bids and awarding contracts takes time, she said, and until all the projects are finished there’s capital money under the county’s control. “There’s no mismanagement of money,” she said.

At the end of the last budget year, Union County Public Schools had a total fund balance of $29.2 million, but only $9.5 million of that is “unassigned.” The rest is designated for specific purposes or has already been committed for spending, Chief Finance Officer Shanna McLamb told the board.

The $9.5 million, which can be tapped for unexpected expenses, “equates to a little over six days of operating for our district,” McLamb said.

By comparison, the county had a total fund balance of almost $236 million and an unassigned fund balance of $12.3 million at the end of the last budget year.

Figuring out cuts

It’s up to the school board to figure out how to spend the money they got from the county, rather than the larger sum the district hoped to get. A preliminary plan presented Tuesday indicated the $5 million increase would not be enough to cover rising costs that aren’t optional, such as state-mandated raises, benefit increases and money that has to be passed along to charter schools that serve about 4,000 Union County students.

That could lead to eliminating new teacher positions and local raises the board had hoped to award to veteran teachers and teacher assistants.

“I’m literally sitting here trying not to cry because these kids are going to suffer,” said school board member John Kirkpatrick IV.

Kirkpatrick alluded, without offering details, to bigger issues between the two boards. “There’s some personal issues that I think they need to put aside for the sake of this county,” he said.

A complicated history

There’s a history of tension between Rape and the board. Rape was elected to the school board in 2016. The following year, according to news reports at the time, all of his colleagues asked him to resign after reports that he made racist jokes and comments. When he refused they voted unanimously to censure him.

Rape was elected to the county commission in 2018 but defeated in this year’s May primary. Ten Republicans vied for three spots on the November ballot. Rape was edged out by school board Chair Melissa Merrell.

Kirkpatrick said the question he struggled with throughout Tuesday’s meeting is: “Where do we go from here? What are we going to do?”

“That’s the $12 million question,” Merrell replied.

She and Heintel said all board members should urge members of the public to lobby commissioners to change their vote and provide more money for education.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.