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Acrimonious Union County budget fight heads to court Monday

The acrimonious budget fight between Union County commissioners and the school board is heading to court this week.

The trial begins Monday in Union County Superior Court, and could last a week or two.

The school board claims that commissioners did not adequately fund the school district for the current school year. The county insists it provided enough money, and that any additional money going to the board would result in tax hikes or service cuts.

In its lawsuit, the school board is seeking a judgment that may authorize commissioners to raise taxes “as may be necessary” to cover money awarded to the district.

The district also wants a jury to determine the amount of money “legally necessary from all sources” to maintain the school system. Such sources could include state or federal funds or proceeds from the state lottery or sales tax, said Richard Schwartz, a Raleigh attorney who represents the district.

In June, the school board had sought mediation after county commissioners approved their $298 million operating and capital budget for 2013-14. The budget included $82.3 million in general operating funds for the school district, or about $2.7 million less than the district wanted but a nearly 2 percent increase over the previous year.

The district also sought $8.4 million in capital funds; the county approved $9 million over three years.

In mediation, the school district proposed a settlement to get an additional $1.9 million over a three-year period for operating expenses, and another $26 million in capital funds during that time, on top of the funding it already was set to receive, the county said. Such a plan would create a $38.5 million deficit over three years, the county said, and require a whopping 10 percent tax increase.

The county disclosed the district’s plan after they reached an impasse in mediation, and included it in a press released with the headline: “Union County Public Schools Failed to Resolve Budget Dispute.”

At the time, the county also said the district had a projected surplus of $2.9 million when factoring in the county’s funding, the school district’s fund balance, adjustments for school board budget requests that appeared to be inflated, and increases in state funding that were finalized after mediation began.

The district’s press release after mediation ended blamed the county’s “failure of leadership” for publicly attacking the school system.

Schwartz called the $2.9 million figure “wildly inaccurate. They don’t understand the state budgeting process.” And he said the county’s description of the settlement offer was completely inaccurate.

Judge Erwin Spainhour, senior resident superior court judge in Cabarrus County, is expected to preside over the case.

As part of its lawsuit, the school district wants the county to cover the district’s legal fees, which Schwartz said was a standard request in such cases. Union County will be represented by county attorney Ligon Bundy and another lawyer in his office, Chris Cox.

The losing side has the option of going to the N.C. Court of Appeals.

The current state law dealing with school district funding disputes was enacted in 1997 and since then, no district has sought mediation more than Union’s. The district has sought mediation four times now.

Each of the other three times, in 1998, 2003 and 2007, the two sides settled the case before going to court although the 2007 deal resulted in a tax increase to cover increases in the district’s budget. It added nearly 3 cents to the tax rate, or nearly an extra $60 in taxes for someone with a $200,000 home.

Bell: 704-358-5696; Twitter: @abell
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