County approves ‘funding formula’ for UCPS

MONROE – Officials with the Union County Board of Commissioners and Union County Public Schools Board of Education hope a recently approved school funding formula will ensure schools get the money they need each year while avoiding costly budget fights between educators and county leaders.

The proposal, in part, sets aside 35.36 cents of the county’s property tax rate – the county’s current tax rate is 66 cents per $100 of taxable property – for the school system.

“Since I have sat in this chair … not one person would say ‘Let’s do something that hurts the schools and kids,’” Commissioner Jonathon Thomas said while discussing school funding this week. “Based on this (formula), we are creating the foundation we need.”

Early estimates, using the new formula and based on expected tax revenue, would give the school system $82.36 million. The system hasn’t submitted its budget proposal yet, but received $80.7 million from the county last year.

Commissioners pointed out the formula could end up working in the school system’s favor.

“Had this been in place five years ago, the schools would have netted $1.5 million,” Thomas said.

The formula is an effort to fund the school system’s operations while avoiding the ugliness of last year’s budget fight that led to the temporary elimination of hundreds of teacher’s assistant jobs.

“The funding formula is based on the concept that Union County and UCPS must live within its means,” reads a news release from the county. “Much like many households during the recent economic downturn, the expenditure discussion begins with available funding.”

The school system laid off some 350 assistants when officials learned they wouldn’t get as much money as they hoped from the state and Union County leaders didn’t immediately step up and provide the extra cash. That kicked off a firestorm that raged between educators, county leaders and members of the community for weeks before the county commission eventually gave schools an extra $1.65 million to hire back teacher’s assistants.

Said Thomas at the time, “It’s difficult sitting in this particular seat with so many worthy causes (we’re) looking at this time of the year for funding and us having limited resources of which we have to allocate. That’s the hard part.”

The formula come on the heels of another measure passed by the county. Earlier this year, commissioners passed a new rule stating, in part, that the board is not required to fill departmental funding gaps from the state. The move likely was aimed at ensuring Union County wouldn’t have to pay millions of dollars extra to UCPS if the school system doesn’t get the money it requests from Raleigh.

As the school board continues work on its budget proposal, the county’s funding formula could be altered, board of educaiton chairman Richard Yercheck said. The board hopes to have its budget finalized by the April 16 county meeting so it can be presented to commissioners. The last day a budget can be submitted is May 15, though Yercheck plans to have the document ready well before the deadline.

“We’re going to continue to work with the county commissioners with our budget,” Yercheck said.  “We have a starting line to now take our budget to them … and then we will move forward to take care of our children, teachers and taxpayers.”

While the Board of Education did not have any role in the creation of the school funding formula, Yercheck says the board will work with the commissioners when they begin to run the 35.36 cents formula through their budget to ensure there will be enough funding to continue providing the same level of education to students in Union County.

“Because we haven’t presented our budget yet, they are setting what they shared with us (as) their preliminary number,” he said.

Yercheck said the board has worked to remove all non-essential items from the budget to help move things along and ensure approval from the county.

“We are looking very closely and paying attention to what we are putting in our budget,” he said.  “The budget we are presenting to them has no padding and no fluff.  We have been doing our work on our side … to make sure we aren’t building any fluff in.  But we also know what it is going to take to take care of (everyone).”

The ultimate goal is to avoid the kind of fight seen last year, that ultimately necessitated mediation, while still making sure the needs of students come first.

“We are talking and communicating with the commissioners but I do know this year is not the same as last year,” Yercheck said. “I don’t think we have the same things going on … Last year was kind of a perfect storm we couldn’t recreate if we had to,”

Added Thomas, “I think what most people realize is, what we went through last year was a less than desirable process. It doesn’t set the example for our children in how we work together.”

Meanwhile, the agreement made this week provides for the addition of eight new school resource officers. The system, which currently has 11 officers, only requested seven additional officers as part of a push to improve security and safety at county campuses. With recent events at schools like Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., where 20 students were shot and killed late last year, the board feels increasing safety is a high priority.

The system has considered asking for as much as $3.5 million to cover school safety improvements, which would pay for projects such as building fences around playgrounds and adding secure card swipe systems at some school doors.

The county must finalize and approve their budget by July 1 or will have to pass emergency legislation allowing them to operate on an interim budget.

For those who want to better understand the school funding formula for Union County Public Schools there will be a presentation on Union County’s government channel, UCTV 16, daily at 2 and 9 a.m. and 7 p.m. or on YouTube at www.youtube.com/unioncountync.

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