UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Fireworks erupted between the Union County Public School's Board of Education and the county commission chairman over the 2023 budget at a specially called meeting Tuesday night. 

The meeting came roughly a week after a fiery, but brief, county commission meeting when the schools’ budget was approved as part of the county’s FY 2023 budget.


What You Need To Know

Union County Public Schools say it will have to find cuts in budget after county commissioners do not fully fund budget request

Union County commission chairman accuses UCPS Board of Education of hoarding millions of dollars in funding, which UCPS board disputes

Board members hint the argument could stem from May's primary elections


As commissioners were voting on the budget, which included final numbers for the schools, the commission chairman, Dennis Rape, and a member of the UCPS board, Gary Sides, got into a heated public argument.

“I was appalled to find out about the unallocated fund balance of $29.2 million with the schools. We’ve always funded what you need, and it appears we’ve over-funded. And, that’s off of your last meeting. Also, the $23.9 million of unencumbered capital improvement money, so I just wanted that in the record. $29.2 million of fund balance, and this came from unpaid teacher salaries and supplements, that have been accumulated over the last few years,” Rape claimed from his chair while voting on the budget.

Soon after, Sides started responding back to him from the audience.

“It’s not true,” Sides called out, which garnered a response from Rape, “Well, Mr. Sides, it is true. And if you spe—“ Rape added before Sides called out again.

“You are incorrect,” Sides added, which is when the two started a more forceful back-and-forth:

Rape: I will have you removed if you don’t be quiet.

Sides: I want it to show for the record [Rape’s gavel] your information is incorrect. 

Rape: Well. You know what incorrect is, we tried to meet with the board twice. One, we were— 

Sides: I don’t want to go into that.

Rape: We were going to do it and we told them we were going to take minutes of it. And, they said we would not meet with the liaisons if we took minutes. [Undistinguishable from crowd] Ma’am?

Sides: That’s a formal meeting, that’s not a meeting of liaisons, do you not know the difference?—

Off camera: Mr. Chairman? 

Rape: And then I asked for a meeting on Friday, that following Friday, and I was told that there couldn’t be enough of y’all there. 

Sides: With less than three days notice, you asked for a meeting at 3 o’clock on a Friday

Off camera: Mr. Chairman this is out of order. This is out of order, let’s carry on with the motion.

Sides: [Rape’s gavel] We made three separate invitations— 

Rape: If you would be quiet, I voted no, so it passes 3 to 2. 

You can watch the entire exchange here, starting at 9:36 in the video.

Last Thursday, UCPS announced the board would meet to, “Review the impact of the 2023 Local County Appropriation and discuss next steps to address the level of funding approved by the Union County Board of Commissioners on June 13.”

In the meeting Tuesday night, UCPS’s board hit back at many of the accusations, talking for roughly two hours about how Rape’s claims were misleading or false in the board's view.

The board, led by Chairperson Melissa Merrell, laid out a detailed schedule of what she claimed were communications between the board and county commissioners dating back to early April. The list of dates, meeting requests, letters and other written correspondence appeared to conflict with Rape’s claim the board was often unavailable when they wanted to discuss the budget.

At one point, Merrell said she had sent the county commissioners a list of five dates to hold a joint meeting to discuss the budget with the county not agreeing to any of those dates.

Later in the meeting, UCPS’ board also disputed Rape’s claim the schools had $29.2 million in unallocated funds. UCPS’s unassigned fund balance is listed as $9.4 million, which a UCPS finance staff member told the board equated to roughly six days of operation or could be applied to other emergency needs. The staff member told the UCPS board the $29.2 million, referenced by Rape, included restricted, assigned and other unavailable funds. 

Originally, UCPS requested $123,965,283 in county funds to operate the schools in FY23, additional funds were needed for debt service and other costs, including a capital budget request of more than $23.3 million. The FY23 request was a roughly $12 million increase compared to the previous year, which Superintendent Andrew Houlihan said was partly meant to increase salaries and add teaching positions. 

For example, the proposed budget included $2.4 million to give raises to longtime teachers, along with $2.1 million to pay for 30 new teaching positions across fourth to 12th grades.

However, on June 13, commissioners approved a $116.4 million allocation for the schools’ operation, leaving more than $7.5 million in UCPS’ allocation proposal unfunded. The commissioners also approved a $19.1 million capital budget for UCPS, which was also less than UCPS’ request.

It’s unclear after Tuesday night’s UCPS meeting what projects will or will not be funded going forward. Board members will now take the approved allocation back to smaller board committees, consider various cuts and then bring amended plans back to the UCPS board for a full vote, according to the process laid out in Tuesday’s meeting.

“In total, this board will be charged in committee and as a cumulative board ... we will be charged to figure out how to run Union County Public Schools, now that ... we did not receive $12.5 million from our request,” Merrell told the board about an hour into the meeting Tuesday night.

As the meeting continued, other board members were critical of the county commission’s appropriation for UCPS.

“I am ashamed our elected county officials making decisions on funding with incorrect assumptions, and the fact that we had requested the joint meeting where we could have easily answered all of those questions, but yet incorrect assumptions were made and then underfunding us as a result of those incorrect assumptions,” added UCPS board member Joseph Morreale.

At other points in the meeting, board members Gary Sides and Melissa Merrell said they questioned the timing of some of Rape’s accusations and social media posts. The two said they believed the posts and accusations were timed to coincide with the recent primaries in Union County. In May, Merrell finished in the top three in the GOP county commission primary, meaning she would advance with the other two candidates to the general election. Rape was also in the same primary and lost his chance to defend and retain his seat, finishing fourth.

“I think that’s the purpose of the May 13th meeting,” Heintel added, referencing a meeting Rape requested, but UCPS board members said they could not attend, just days before the primary.

“There is a bigger issue that’s going on between the board of education and the board of county commissioners. There are some personal issues that I think they need to put aside for the sake of this county. Our children are our No. 1 priority, and when we are limiting them and their futures, what we’re doing is we’re setting them up for failure,” added board member John Kirkpatrick.

Why did UCPS say it needed more money in FY2023?

More than $4 million of the proposed increase was meant for teacher and staff raises, as well as 30 new teaching positions to aid with crowding and class sizes from fourth to 12th grades, according to Houlihan.

Back in May when UCPS’ board approved the final budget request, Houlihan said the hiring would be a challenge, which is why they requested the money ahead of time.

“So will it be a challenge? Absolutely. But, I’d rather have the money set aside, as opposed to having to come back in two or three months with this as a need in a budget shortfall,” Houlihan told Spectrum News 1 in early May about the budget request.

“When you reach year 15 or above, you’re really kind of capped out on the type of increase you can receive. And so, what we found is over the course of the last four to five years, comparatively speaking, our most veteran teachers have not been given the same rate of increase as our beginning teachers. And, we believe it’s time for them to get another increase,” Houlihan added about the teacher raises back in May.

County commissioners did make it clear last week they were setting aside money UCPS asked for in a specific area, which was a last-minute budget request for additional school resource officers. The request came after the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. However, UCPS board members claimed the $1 million was an additional subtraction from the school district’s allocation, moved to the county's account to pay the sheriff's office.

In early June, UCPS announced during the board’s regular meeting, it would ask the county for additional funds to add school resource officers to the elementary schools. Currently, Houlihan said the county has a one-to-one officer to school ratio at the middle and high schools, but not the elementary schools. 

“The safety and security of our teachers and our staff and our students will continue to remain the No. 1 priority. And, we are going to do all we can this summer to make sure when that first day of school opens next year, and throughout every day of the next school year, we have done absolutely everything we can do to protect our children and our staff,” Houlihan said during the early June meeting.

In the same meeting, Houlihan said staff or an outside consultant would conduct safety audits of all 53 school buildings. 

Last week, when county commissioners approved the budget, they said $1 million would be set aside to hire four deputies and a sergeant to act as school resource officers in the county’s elementary schools.

In a presentation at the UCPS meeting Tuesday night, the proposed $2.1 million set aside for 30 new teaching positions, $2.4 million set aside for teacher raises and more funding set aside for other raises for facilities staff, teacher assistants and assistant principals were all listed as potential cuts due to the county's approved appropriation.

To end the meeting, UCPS board members urged the county’s parents, students and school staff to email and call commissioners to urge them to fully fund the FY23 budget request.

This is not the first time commissioners and UCPS’ board have had a public disagreement. Back in September, Merrell defended her board’s actions to commissioners after commissioner Richard Helms criticized the board’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same meeting, county commissioners voted against a vote of confidence in the UCPS board.