Union County commissioners, school board try to move forward on budget issues

There is little love lost between feuding members of the Union County school board and board of commissioners, but they finally held a joint meeting Wednesday night to discuss the upcoming budget.

The meeting prompted new disagreements between the boards on how best to tackle the budget process.

Commissioners’ Chairman Frank Aikmus has repeatedly sought a joint meeting, saying he wanted to use it as a way to start rebuilding relationships between the groups.

Last year, the school board sued the county because it disliked the level of funding commissioners allocated for it in the 2013-14 budget. A jury awarded the district $91 million, and the county continues to appeal the verdict.

The two groups also continued to trade barbs over leadership and school redistricting issues. Just last week, school board Chairman Richard Yercheck accused commissioners of trying to sabotage the joint meeting when they asked state legislative leaders to pass a bill to let the county take control of school property, upkeep and construction.

But the two boards tried to put the ill feelings aside, at least for a night, and focus on the 2014-15 budget.

The boards faced each other on opposite sides of desks on a school auditorium stage in front of several dozen people.

County staff highlighted a plan that would ditch last year’s school funding formula. “We really hope this is going to be a process for improvement ... and foster an environment for cooperation ... and transparency,” said Jeff Yates, the county’s chief financial officer.

But Yercheck said school board members objected to parts of the plan, and cited the county proposal to split consideration of the budget into a schools and nonschools portion, rather than considering those needs together when coming up with the county tax rate.

“It characterizes us as the bad guys,” Yercheck said.

The county does not anticipate the need to raise taxes for its portion of the rate, which includes operating expenses and debt service on school construction. Under the county plan, the school board would propose a budget to be considered by commissioners for the schools’ tax rate.

Yercheck also said the board wanted one of the budget principles to include having the school system “no longer demonized” as the source of the county’s financial problems.

Commissioner Richard Helms said the word “demonizing is not one that fosters teamwork.”

The two boards ended the meeting by agreeing to hold more joint meetings.

“This has to be a true partnership if we are going to move this forward,” Aikmus said. “This (process) is by no means set in stone.”

“I came here with a sense of dread,” school board member Rick Pigg said. “I leave here optimistic.”