Union County approves $298M budget package

MONROE – The Union County Board of Commissioners approved a 2013-14 fiscal budget and capital investment plan Monday night, June 17, which has commissioners applauding their own heightened efforts to fund schools but some education advocates concerned it’s just not enough to catch up to students’ needs.

The budget provides roughly $82 million for Union County Public Schools operating costs, $3 million for capital projects that includes renovations to Piedmont High School’s football stadium, $46 million toward debt service and around $1.5 million for school resource officers. The budget includes some $2 million more than last year’s education funding totals, though some parents argue that money won’t go far in benefiting students in a district that’s been playing catch-up for years.

Commissioners say parents should blame that on their school board, not on county leaders.

“If you can’t responsibly and ‘prudently’ – as (school board chairman Richard Yercheck) likes to say … operate with $2.2 million more than you had last year, then go on and take your next steps,” Commissioner Frank Aikmus said following the budget vote.

“I believe your board of county commissioners protected you from a tax-and-spend school board,” Aikmus also said. “Now you may say the school board doesn’t have the authority to tax, and I say to you, ‘Thank heavens.’”

In an interview in May with Union County Weekly, school system officials said they anticipated a budget increase of $4.6 million from the county and more than $8 million for capital projects, though those numbers were still lower than what they would like to receive. Speaking at Monday’s budget meeting, Commissioner Richard Helms accused the school board of poor management in the way it spent taxpayer money – saying that if the school board wanted to avoid a shortfall in educational funding then it needed to look harder at where it could cut from other projects and departments.

“Money’s not the problem,” Helms said of the school board, “… it’s how they’re spending it.”

Some school advocates argue differently, saying the school system has been forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel each year just to get by and are proposing “needs-only” budgets because they know additional funding requests don’t stand a chance in front of a county commission that pledged to keep taxes low.

A number of parents spoke at a June 3 public forum on the budget, urging commissioners to consider a tax increase to fund education and teacher raises. A few parents returned on Monday to again plead for extra funding.

“I’m here to say, as a citizen, I want to pay more taxes and I want to support education,” one woman said. “I feel like it’s the Christian, moral thing to do.”

Another woman, speaking at the public forum earlier this month, told commissioners taxpayers would applaud them for being courageous and raising taxes for education. Aikmus dismissed those comments on Monday, saying he’s pleased with how the system is funded.

“Well, friends, hold your applause,” he said. “ … It is not a time to raise taxes. We got to remember that when everyone touts that the reason that people come to Union County is for the schools, well, I agree. We do have good schools. But we also adequately fund those schools, and we fund them with your tax dollars.”

Two other parents urged county leaders Monday night to provide more funding for improvements at the aging Sun Valley High School campus, with one woman telling commissioners Sun Valley classes sometimes have to be moved during storms because of  severe leaks in the school building’s roof.

“It’s time to direct significant dollars toward the maintenance and improvement of the older schools in the county,” another parent said.

Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said it was the school board that decided to pay for improvements at other campuses with what capital funds were given, not commissioners.

“I don’t believe it’s prudent for this board to jump in front of that board for these needs,” Thomas said, telling parents they should direct their Sun Valley funding concerns to the school board.

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