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Union County leaders to meet Friday over contentious mediation

Union County government and school leaders will meet again Friday in an increasingly contentious mediation over budget funding.

Two days after their first mediation-related session, the county sued the school board Wednesday to force the board to turn over financial documents the county said it needs to adequately defend itself in mediation. A school district lawyer was dismissive of the lawsuit and said the documents would be produced probably within days.

The two sides began mediation far apart.

Last week, the school board sought mediation after county commissioners approved their $298 million operating and capital budget for 2013-14, including $82.3 million in general operating funds for the school district. That’s about $2.7 million less than the district had wanted.

The school district also had sought $8.4 million in capital funds, but the county covered $9 million spread out over three years.

Commissioners have said they would need to raise taxes or cut services to provide more money to the district.

“We’re not entrenched, we’re just looking for a fair shake and the mediator is helping us get there,” school board Chair Richard Yercheck said. “We’re not trying to stick it to the taxpayers or the county.”

Commissioners Chair Jerry Simpson said he wasn’t sure how long it might take to resolve the issue.

If there is no deal by Aug. 1, the two sides could agree to extend talks. If not, the mediator would declare an impasse and the school district would be able to sue the county over the budget.

A joint meeting between commissioners and the school board Monday night was the first step in the mediation process, which is being overseen by Chapel Hill attorney Andy Little. Both sides made presentations to bolster their case but neither board debated the issue.

On Friday, the board chairs, county and school officials and their lawyers will meet with Little. He said he did not know yet what would be the next step after that session.

Asked about the lawsuit’s impact on the process, school board attorney Richard Schwartz said, “I can’t imagine any way it could be viewed as a positive step.” The county wants the case be heard next Wednesday in Union County Superior Court.

This is the fourth time the school district of 41,000 students has sought mediation since 1998, the year after the current state law dealing with the issue was enacted. No other district has used the process that many times.

In the previous years the district sought mediation, 1998, 2003 and 2007, the conflicts were resolved without the two sides needing to go to court. Each time, the school district ended up with more money.

In 2007, the district received an additional $6.9 million in operating and capital funds through mediation.

That settlement also resulted in a property tax hike to help cover the additional costs, and was on top of a previously approved tax increase. The increase to cover mediation changes added nearly 3 cents to the tax rate, or nearly an extra $60 in taxes for someone with a $200,000 home.

The other two cases did not lead to tax hikes.

Bell: 704-358-5696
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