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Union Co. parents, school leaders urge commissioners to drop appeal of $91M verdict

More than a dozen Union County parents, educators and school board members strongly urged county commissioners Monday night to drop their appeal of a verdict that gave the school board $91 million in additional county money.

The county leaders gave no indication that would happen.

Last week, they announced they were appealing the recent Superior Court verdict that ordered the county to pay $91 million in addition to what it already had set aside for schools. The groups had been locked in a budget fight, and were about $9 million apart, when mediation failed and they began the two-month trial.

Commissioners said they need to appeal what otherwise would lead to a “catastrophic” one-time tax increase of 42 percent. That would generate $64.4 million, with the remaining $26.7 million coming from the county’s rainy day account in the general fund.

The 14 people who spoke Monday night all met with applause from the commissioners’ packed meeting room.

Several parents accused commissioners of wasting tax dollars on legal fees with an appeal, which will take months to reach the state Court of Appeals. Legal bills for the two sides already have hit a combined $450,000.

The loudest cheers were for school Superintendent Mary Ellis, who chastised commissioners for refusing the district’s request throughout the trial to settle the case. “Stop the appeal. Stop the foolishness. Stop the spin,” Ellis said.

Another speaker likened commissioners to “bullies on the playground” trying to get their way by appealing. And school board member Kevin Stewart told commissioners, “You need to man up and shoulder your part of the load.”

In a statement on the district’s website Monday, school board Chairman Richard Yercheck said threats of a big tax hike “are clearly scare tactics.” He told the Observer that the county has the ability to use various accounts to cover the award without raising taxes, including $89 million in “enterprise funds” paid with user fees for such services as water and sewer.

“The money’s there,” Yercheck said. “There’s no reason to raise taxes. You can’t put that on the school system.”

County officials strongly objected that they have additional money for the verdict beyond what they already detailed. And they said they have an obligation to use enterprise dollars only to support services that those fees cover.

“We’re extending them an olive branch while they sit down at the computer and pump out this type of rhetoric” on their website, commissioner Jonathan Thomas said Monday afternoon.

At the meeting, commissioners Chairman Jerry Simpson said one of his main goals is to build a financially sustainable future for the county. He called the appeal a process, just as litigation has been part of a process.

Commissioners voted, as planned, to give the school board $5.4 million in additional support for capital needs – mainly to cover roofing needs identified at trial that the school board had not detailed during earlier budget meetings. County leaders also agreed to joint meetings so both sides can develop a healthy working relationship.

Yercheck did say the school board would gratefully take the additional capital money and would be happy to have joint meetings.

In June, commissioners approved a $298 million budget that included about $82 million in general operating funds for the school district and $3 million for capital needs.

Because the verdict is under appeal, the system will receive what the commissioners approved for the current budget year and not the $91 million award, school board attorney Richard Schwartz said.

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