Union County

Leaders working to ease boards’ tensions

County Commissioners Chairman Richard Helms and Board of Education Chairman John Collins have been working on ways to ease tensions between the two panels.

The two recently agreed to a meeting of the two boards in early October.

“We’re trying to finalize the date right now,” Helms said. “The reason we need to get together is better communication. It’s easy to misunderstand one another when your communication passes through multiple people.”

The tension became most obvious recently when Commissioner Frank Aikmus went into an angry, public outburst about the school board.

At its Aug. 17 meeting, commissioners had asked that a school board representative be present to answer questions about a budget request. The school board wants to reallocate $1.2 million in their budget that had been designated for a renovation project at Benton Heights Elementary School and upgrading security cameras to an Internet protocol system.

The school board wants the money to instead be used for emerging needs throughout the school system, such as necessary repairs to school HVAC systems and roofs.

Helms sent Collins a letter dated Aug. 11 with questions about the proposed reallocation. Helms said it is always prudent to ask where the money is going.

“That’s Business 101,” he said. He likened it to a child asking a parent for money, and the parent asking “What do you need it for?”

Collins said he considered Helms’ questions to be answered through a two-and-a-half hour meeting between staff members of both organizations. Collins also said the meeting resulted in printed answers to Helms’ questions.

“We understood the matter to be fully explained during a meeting on Aug. 13, of both Union County Commissioners and Union County Public Schools senior staff members,” Collins said in an email. “Evidently Union County staff chose not to share the information ... with the Commissioners. It was only revealed when I discussed the matter with Chairman Helms later on Aug. 18. He assured me the information given to staff on Aug. 13 was not shared with him.”

Helms said the information had not been shared because county staff expected a school board representative to attend the Aug. 17 commissioners meeting.

“It was irrelevant that our staffs had met because the request I’d made was that they have a representative there,” Helms said.

When a school board representative did not attend the commissioners meeting, Aikmus referred to the school board as “jokers” and said he was “sick and tired of all the bullying and all the bull crap from the board of education.... I’ve got questions and there’s not a darn soul here to answer them. ... “I move we don’t take a vote on this.”

Collins said later that some members of both boards had been trading insults, so he and Helms agreed to take additional steps to get the boards to work together better.

“I’ve been on the board for 11 years, and the commissioners and board of education have never been in lock-step with each other,” Collins said. “I anticipate that’s part of the government process. Checks and balances.”

Relations between the two boards have been especially tense since 2013, when the school board sued the county for additional funding.

Before settling on the October meeting, they considered scheduling facilitators from UNC’s Institute of Government to hold a four-hour “harmony” session, Collins said. But the earliest available slot for a session was late October, Collins said, and they wanted to work on this issue sooner.

Collins said they also talked about asking members from both boards to meet individually over cups of coffee or informal lunches to get to know one another. But they decided against that, too.

He said they talked about holding the joint meeting in late September, but Helms had scheduling conflicts and Collins considered his presence essential.

“I’ve found that when you sit down face-to-face, communications seem to be friendlier and more truthful, so I’m looking forward to our having better understanding,” Helms said.

“I would hope we’d be able to work together,” Collins said.

Jane Duckwall is a freelance writer: jbduckwall@gmail.com.

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