Wake commissioners say school board should return unspent money

mquillin@newsobserver.comFebruary 4, 2013 

The Wake County School Board should return to county coffers millions in unspent funds it’s improperly holding in reserve, County Commissioner Tony Gurley said Monday.

A longstanding debate over how much money the school board should keep in reserve created more controversy Monday, with Gurley accusing school officials of trying to mislead the commission.

“They owe us $13 million,” Gurley said after a county commission meeting at which the schools’ chief business officer, David Neter, presented a report of the schools’ audit for the year ending June 30, 2012.

The school board’s policy is to keep a reserve equal to about 6 percent of its annual county appropriations for use in case of emergency. In 2012, its county appropriation was more than $314 million. At 6 percent, its reserve fund would be about $18.8 million.

At the end of fiscal 2012, the fund’s balance was $32.1 million, or $13.3 million more than the board’s policy advises. In a slide presentation to commissioners, Neter presented the amount as 2.57 percent of the schools’ total appropriations, which also include state and federal funds.

When questioned about the difference in the amounts, Neter said he had advised the school board to base its reserve off the total appropriations, not its county funding. In 2012, the school board had a total budget from all sources of $1.25 billion dollars.

Republican commissioners grilled Neter over the accounting, with Gurley being the most critical, saying the board had violated its own policy and then tried to obfuscate it.

“You’ve changed a number to make it look like you’re under your balance,” Gurley said.

“I’ve not altered any numbers,” Neter countered.

“I think you’re trying to mislead us,” Gurley said.

“I apologize if you feel you’re being misled,” Neter said.

Commissioner Paul Coble told Neter it’s frustrating for members of the board to be criticized as not adequately funding schools when the school board is setting county money aside in reserve.

Betty Lou Ward defended the school board’s actions.

“They need to be able to act without coming to us every three months” to ask for money for unexpected needs, she said.

Money — where to get it, how to spend it and who is accountable for it — has been a contentious issue between the commissioners and the school board. Republican county commissioners favor a plan to move construction, ownership and upkeep of school buildings to the commission. Presently, the board appropriates the money for schools, and the school board builds, owns and maintains them.

Commissioners were scheduled to hold a second reading Monday of a proposal to buy land for a middle school in North Raleigh, but vice chairman Phil Matthews asked that it be postponed until March 18. When Ward asked why, he said, “I need to review this longer.”

Next, the board took up a new proposal to buy the former YWCA building and land in East Raleigh for the school system as a future school site. Commissioners voted down a proposal to buy the building and three tracts of land in December, saying the $1 million price was too high and that title problems with one of the tracts made it unattractive.

The new proposal involves the building and two tracts of land for $825,000.

Democrats Ward, James West and Caroline Sullivan spoke in favor of the purchase, with Sullivan especially interested in its possible use as a kindergarten or pre-K facility. Republican members of the board questioned the urgency of the purchase, the price and the usefulness of the building and its two acres.

At the end of the meeting, the board met a group of Ukrainian visitors in the U.S. to study political processes. Matthew asked the group, who are involved in local politics in their own country, whether their meetings are as spirited as these.

Bob McCamy, president of Friendship Force Raleigh, which is hosting the group, answered for them.

“From my discussions with them, yes,” McCamy said. “I think they’re used to fairly contentious debate.”

Quillin: 919-829-8989

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