Published in print September 2, 2015
still in question
By THOMAS P. WEAVER
CELINA-In a special called meeting here Monday night county commissioners passed a budget to continue operations the next day, but wether or not schools will close in the future remains unknown.
After the budget committee voted to recommend what has been referred to as a “maintenance of effort” school budget—one including the same money as was appropriated last year plus an additional state mandated $16,000, the full commission unanimously passed and adopted their budget for this fiscal year just hours before a new law was set to strip the county of its spending authority—effectively shutting down the entire entity.
The Clay County school board voted Thursday to set Friday as the last day of school if a budget was not approved by the deadline, but as of HORIZON press time late Monday night it was still unclear if the commission’s vote would stop that from happening.
“The judge in this is the comptroller,” director of schools Jerry Strong said immediately after the county meeting adjourned. “Will the comptroller accept their action, because this is not a unified budget.”
“The bottom line is if the comptroller says this action is ok, then actually we are not in violation of the law and we won’t close schools—the board wouldn’t even consider it, but if the comptroller disagrees and says we still don’t have a unified budget—then we’re still on course the way we were.”
When asked if the commission’s decision did hold up with the comptroller, would the original October date to close schools remain in effect Strong said “it could still be in play.”
“Here’s where we’re at, the department of education can’t ratify our budget until he (school board chairman David West) and I sign off on it,” he said. “And I’m not planning on signing off on it because I’m not going to sit here and let the commission break our schools and that’s what they’re doing.”
The director’s comment came after county attorney Hershel Lacy opened the reconvened budget committee meeting just 15 minutes prior to the special called meeting with a recommendation for commissioners.
“You need to tonight to try to pass some type of budget to send before the whole commission,” Lacy explained. “You’ve already approved basically everybody’s budget except for the school system, so what you need to do at this point and time is to pass a school budget.
He continued explaining commissioners “can’t control how the school spends their money,” but said they do control how they get it.
“So your options are that you can allocate less money to them, the amount of money they want, or more money to them, but somewhere in that line a budget needs to be recommended by this group to the whole commission,” Lacy told the committee. “If you’re not going to approve their budget you can at least allocate their funds.”
He then explained the importance of time due to the new law setting the current deadline.
“If the county does not have a budget as of this evening, the county has no authority to spend money on Sept 1—thats tomorrow,” he said. “So, if you don’t pass a budget through the commission later on this evening or if one’s not recommended to them and passed—then the county shuts down tomorrow.
“If you’re not going to fund the budget the county court has (as submitted by the school board) or has offered, then you can allocate sufficient funds that you think will take care of the school board, but you cannot give any less than what they call a maintenance of effort.”
Commissioner Winton Young then addressed Lacy for clarification.
“If I understand what you just said, if we do pass a budget tonight, the county can operate on Tuesday morning?” he asked the attorney.
“The county will have the authority to spend money,” Lacy replied.
“Just like it is—the sheriff’s department, sanitation, all county offices if we pass a budget tonight,” Young commented before posing another question. “What about the school system?”
“If you pass the school budget the way its written or if you allocate the amount of funds that you think that you’re going to give them through the maintenance of effort, then the school board has a budget amount,” Lacy answered. “They don’t have a budget—they’ll have to go back and redo it probably to make it balance, but they will have funds.
“The county will be able to pay them what funds the county has in order to operate.”
County mayor Dale Reagan then spoke before the budget committee made their recommendation.
“I will echo what the attorney has said, that is your-all’s duty to pass a budget and pass appropriations so that the county can continue to operate,” he said to the committee.
Commissioner Timmie Boles then questioned Lacy.
“If we allocate the funds, but don’t pass the budget will there be another budget presented to us or how will that work?” he asked.
“The school budget won’t be approved, but the allocation of funds will be there,” Lacy explained. “That will go back to the school board.
“The school board then knows exactly how much money they have—then that’s up to them on what they do from there—they won’t be able to say they didn’t get funded.”
Commissioner Wright then made a motion to recommend “total appropriations for the fiscal year 2016 budget for the general purpose school fund that is no more than the projected revenues for that fund,” and the committee unanimously approved it before the full commission voted on the budget and set an identical tax rate to last year—$3.10.
See next week’s HORIZON for more about last week’s school board meeting where procedures for closing schools were discussed, to learn whether or not schools remained open, and much more on this ongoing issue.