I-SS and MGSD board members take aim at the county commissioners’ 75/25 split
The agenda for Wednesday evening’s meeting of the I-SS and MGSD Boards of Education, representatives from Mitchell Community College, and county commissioners Gene Houpe and Chair Gen. James Mallory quickly turned from one of inquiry into one of frustration.
Much of that frustration centered on a resolution from the previous evening’s commissioners meeting, where a resolution on the proposed quarter-cent sales tax increase pledged only to provide “up to 75 percent” of those tax proceeds for education–with the other 25 percent going to support the county’s coffers.
“I am concerned with the language of the resolution,” MGSD Board of Education member Debbie Marsh said early in the meeting. “Why can’t we use language guaranteeing the funding for education?”
Mooresville Graded School District Superintendent Dr. Steve Mauney called for clarification to specifically designate funds from the tax increase to education. “Having it on the record will serve as an anchor for future boards [of county commissioners].”
I-SS Board of Education member Bill Howell seconded that. “We’ve been discussing this quarter-cent increase for over a year. The schools are already operating on a shoestring and need to expand. I feel like I was blindsided [by the 75/25 split]. What happened?”
Did the Red-4-Ed Rally hurt the chances for the sales tax proposal? Commissioners say yes.
Audience members were left to infer the answers to Marsh’s and Howell’s questions more from what was left unspoken by commissioners Houpe and Mallory.
At the heart of the matter–and as was referenced directly by commissioner Jeff McNeely at Tuesday’s meeting–was the May 16th state-wide rally for education, at which tens of thousands of educators gathered in Raleigh to petition state legislators for improvements in classroom and resource funding for public schools. The implication, then, was that some commissioners were so upset by the educators’ civic engagement that they torpedoed the original proposal for the sales tax increase and took 25 percent of its proceeds back while only promising educators “up to” 75 percent.
I-SS Board of Education member Sam Kennington pointed out that their board passed a resolution seeking 100 percent of the funds generated by the sales tax increase for education. “I’d like to see the county commissioners give our resolution an absolute, up-or-down vote.”
Commissioners Chair Mallory answered that the commissioners’ resolution, splitting the funds 75/25, was specifically that. “If this is an absoluteness situation, we’ll end up with 100 percent of nothing.”
A lack of trust
As was initially introduced at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting, both Houpe and Mallory expanded on how their board could only support a 75/25 split, citing continued needs in other county operations, the uncertainty of sales tax revenues, and fiscal conservatism in how the county builds its budgets. Lingering behind those statements, though, was the increasingly undeniable fact that at least three members of the county commissioners didn’t fully trust the school systems to use this additional revenue appropriately.
Commissioner Marvin Norman, contacted later by Statesville Record & Landmark reporter John Deem, confirmed as much, saying he “was troubled last year when I-SS redirected money that was supposed to fund ‘gate guards’ stationed at campus entrances, especially in light of recent school shootings nationally.”
Members of both education boards noted that without a public guarantee of 100 percent of the proceeds going to education, passing the quarter-cent increase was going to be very difficult. MGSD Board of Education member Greg Whitfield worried that if those proceeds were used for something other than education, it could hurt the credibility of the school systems at a critical time, with continued facilities needs arriving in just a couple of years.
Only one education board member, I-SS’s Anna Bonham, spoke up in support of the commissioners’ resolution. “I’d rather have 75 percent of something rather than nothing.”
Commissioners Houpe and Mallory repeated more than once that the county simply didn’t have the existing revenue to support the school systems’ needs. “These needs don’t go away [if the sales tax referendum is defeated],” Mallory pointed out. “We can’t keep adding programs unless we cut others.”
I-SS Superintendent Brady Johnson offered the last word, repeating how unfunded state and federal mandates pushed his budget upward by 3.4 percent–and that the county’s budget increase of two percent still left a funding gap. Without further revenue from the county, I-SS would have to cut positions to shore up the budget. He urged the county commissioners to give education boards authority to spend money where its needed most and not compromise student well-being with political retribution.
Both I-SS and MGSD boards of education indicated they needed to revisit the proposed sales tax increase in light of the commissioners’ resolution. I-SS Board of Education chair Martin Page pushed for another meeting–this time with all five county commissioners present–but so far, no called meeting has been scheduled.
Iredell citizens will also have the opportunity to share their concerns during a public hearing at the commissioners’ June 19 meeting at 7:00 p.m.