Simpson takes stand in school funding trial
By Carolyn Steeves
MONROE — The trial between the Union County Board of Education and the Union County Board of Commissioners continued Wednesday afternoon with County Manager Cindy Coto in the witness box.
Board of Education Attorney Richard Schwartz asked Coto about the funding formula the commissioners adopted in March. He asked Coto if she advised the commissioners that the board of education did not approve the formula prior to their vote. Coto could not remember.
The concept of the formula was developed at a Feb. 15 meeting, but the entire policy was not fully developed there. Schwartz asked if there were any meeting between Feb. 15 and March 18, when the formula was adopted. Coto said no meetings, but some e-mails.
Coto said she still believes the funding formula covers school funding. She said the intent of the formula was to give the schools a rough idea of the money they would have from the county when they were putting together a budget.
Coto was dismissed after more than a week of questioning and Chairman Jerry Simpson of the Union County Board of Commissioners was called to the stand.
Simpson has been on the board since 2010 and was chosen as chairman at his first meeting.
Schwartz questioned Simpson about a press release the county issued in March with a quote attributed to Simpson. The press release mentioned a surplus that they learned a few days later was incorrect due to a false assumption made by Union County Finance Director Jeff Yates.
Schwartz asked Simpson if Coto explained that Yates had done some bad math.
“Mr. Yates doesn’t do bad math,” Simpson said.
Simpson said Yates explained how he arrived at the first piece of information and what he believed to be the correct information. He could not talk about it further, saying it was part of mediation and therefore closed.
Judge Erwin Spainhour reminded Schwartz that he cannot ask about the mediation sessions that ended in an impasse and led to the court case.
Schwartz asked Simpson if they issued a retraction once they discovered the mistake and Simpson said no.
“At that point we were heading toward litigation,” Simpson said, adding that he did not see the point.
You didn’t see the point in correcting bad information the county had given to the public? Schwartz asked.
In addition to the press release, the Union Update e-newsletter also contained the numbers. Simpson said they discussed Union Update and discussed the information being wrong, but did not change it.
Schwartz also questioned Simpson about the funding formula, asking if he remembered Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck saying the funding would not be sufficient.
Simpson said he remembered Yercheck having an issue with the pennies in the formula. When Schwartz asked if it was clear at the Feb. 15 meeting that there was no agreement on the formula, Simpson said it was a conceptual formula so there was no agreement.
However, Schwartz noted, the county adopted the formula without hearing from the schools and the amount in the capital outlay is the same as the amount in the penny formula.
Schwartz asked Simpson if, when they adopted the budget, they had the school’s request. Simpson said yes, but they never approved the original request.
Schwartz had Simpson use a calculator to calculate some budget figures. Commissioner Attorney Ligon Bundy objected to Schwartz “giving his client math tests,” noting that Schwartz had the numbers. Spainhour overruled his objection.
Schwartz had Simpson total the operations budget and the capital outlay, noting that the amount was lower than last year.
He asked Simpson if Wednesday afternoon was the first time he had realized that that total funding went down this year.
Simpson said he did not have the specific numbers and it was his understanding that they were funding more for operations and probably less for capital.
Simpson said that the capital and operations funding were separate for him and he had never totaled them.
“Until just now,” Schwartz asked.
“Until just now,” Simpson replied.
Schwartz asked about the school system’s facilities plan. Simpson said they had not studied the plan or proposals as a board.
Schwartz noted that at $3 million a year, it would take 91 years to pay for the school’s needs, assuming no inflation, bonds or changes in need. He noted that the study was only for existing schools, not new schools or land.
Simpson said the $3 million was a placeholder until they received more information and he assumed the board of education would come next year with their needs and they would adjust the amount. He said they asked five specific questions and did not receive answers.
The trial continued Thursday and will resume Friday morning, with an early release for the holiday. There will be no court Monday due to Labor Day and proceedings will resume Tuesday.