UCPS: Jury award will cut into long list of needs

MONROE – The Union County Public Schools Board of Education and district leaders will soon discuss how to spend the roughly $91 million in addition money the system recently was awarded by a Union County jury, assuming the money comes through early next year.

The award marks the end of nearly nine weeks of arguments in a Union County courtroom following a lawsuit over proper funding levels for UCPS this school year. The lawsuit, which the county must decide to appeal by early November, awarded the school system an additional $86 million for capital projects – such as school repair needs – and nearly $5 million for the operating budget – which pays for everything from the heating bill to teacher and staff salary and numerous other needs.

The budget, approved this summer, provided schools with roughly $82 million for operating costs, $3 million for capital projects, $46 million toward debt service and around $1.5 million for school resource officers for the 2013-14 school year. It was a $2.1 million increase over the 2012-13 budget, but not nearly enough to properly run the system, school board leaders said.

UCPS Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck said the board hasn’t started formal conversations about where the money will go, adding it will be divided among a towering amount of need for a school system with numerous aging buildings and a quickly growing student population.

“That (capital projects) money … I could spend $30 million tomorrow redoing roofs,” Yercheck said a few days after the jury’s decision. “And that doesn’t touch any of my (Americans with Disabilities Act) issues, any of my asbestos issues, any of my safety and security issues.”

Some parents and educators complained during this summer’s budget talks that classes have to be moved during heavy rain due to leaky roofs, and Yercheck said some school staff have to help children into the restroom because many bathroom stall doors aren’t wide enough to accommodate wheelchairs at the older campuses – many of which were built before 1970.

A comprehensive study conducted in 2007 by the county and school system identified $283 million in capital needs in the school system – things such as asbestos problems, deteriorating roofs and structural issues. The system has built 11 schools since then, adding more campuses with capital needs.

The county gave the system $3 million this summer for capital needs, much of which was earmarked for stadium repairs at Piedmont High School.

“To say, ‘How does this $91 million compare (to needs),’ I added 11 schools since the $283 million to-do list,” Yercheck said. “So, when I tell you that I could go pretty much spend $91 million in one meeting, it’s not hard to figure it out because every school in the system needs something. Some just need a little bit of love, like new desks, and some need new roofs.”

The school system and Superintendent Mary Ellis tried to reach a settlement with the county on multiple occasions, Yercheck said, to avoid a trial and then to bring the trial to a close once it began in August. Yercheck would not say how much the system was willing to settle for, insisting they never talked about numbers, and would not say if the jury award was more or less than what the system would have accepted to stop a trial.

“We made offers all along the way, every day of the trial,” he said in regard to settlement talks. “ … we would have one of our attorneys ask the county every day of the trial if they would be willing to settle (and) if we could sit down and come to a number that we both felt (to be) reasonable.”

The county released a statement from Union County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jerry Simpson that read, in part, “The board recognizes the importance of education and many have children and grandchildren who attend the Union County schools.  Along with school funding, however, the board is responsible for a myriad of other services each of which have critical needs: law enforcement, emergency services, fire protection, health and human services, as well as community services such as libraries and parks will all be impacted by this decision.”

Simpson referred back to the released statement when reached through email by Union County Weekly on Tuesday, Oct. 15. See more from the county in the accompanying story.

Yercheck said the board will attempt to take all the system’s needs into consideration when it starts discussion on spending. The system could receive the money in early 2014 – around the same time the board starts budget discussions for the 2014-15 school year.

Budget talks between the school board and county have been contentious of late, ending with this summer’s trial. But Yercheck hopes both sides can move forward on next year’s spending discussion and not end up back in a courtroom in summer of 2014.

“I think everybody is going to put their best foot forward,” he said.

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