05/12/10 — Duplin board asks schools to negotiate

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Duplin board asks schools to negotiate

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on May 12, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County Commissioner Frances Parks joined several local business representatives Tuesday night to ask the Duplin Board of Education to work with the county commission to resolve their differences.

"You know we cannot continue like we're going. There's nothing good about it," Ms. Parks said.

Ms. Parks, the vice chair of the county commission, was nominated by the county board at its budget meeting Tuesday to address the school board on behalf of the commissioners during the public comment period. She asked the school board to work to understand the county's financial situation.

"We can pick up the broken pieces together and move ahead," Ms. Parks said.

Representatives from major agribusiness companies operating in Duplin County were more pointed in their statements, calling for the school board to forgive a court-ordered $4.8 million judgment that might mean a 14-cent supplementary tax levy for Duplin property owners.

Mike Bliss, vice president of operations at Butterball LLC, said that the tax levy would harm his company at a time when the agribusiness industry is just beginning to emerge from two years of economic struggles. The company already pays roughly $645,000 in property taxes on its Mount Olive-area facilities, and has fought to keep from laying off employees during the recession. Butterball has felt "tremendous economic hardship," and would be damaged by a tax levy, he said.

Bliss said Butterball seeks to have the school board and the county commission come to a resolution to work together to find a solution to the issue.

"Please consider the long-term effect," he said.

Kraig Westerbeek, vice president for health and safety compliance for hog producer Murphy-Brown LLC, said the levy would cost the company an additional $150,000 in taxes. Murphy-Brown, the second-largest employer and taxpayer in the county, has also been struggling with rising costs even as many hog growers in the state have had to shut down their operations, Westerbeek said.

The tax would place a severe burden on livestock producers at a time when they cannot afford it, and Westerbeek said the company is "profoundly disappointed" that the two boards have not found a way to resolve it.

"We expect better of both boards," he said.

Duplin County Farm Bureau President Dexter Edwards pointed out how important agribusiness is for the county, and emphasized the economic pressure local contract growers in particular have felt over the last several years.

"Work out this problem in a manner that we can afford and not have this 14-cent tax," Edwards said.

Warsaw Mayor Win Batten also addressed the school board, calling attention to the quarter-cent sales tax increase to support Duplin's volunteer fire departments that recently passed a referendum. A previous sales tax increase for the same amount, meant to fund the school system, did not pass because the citizens do not trust how the board handles taxpayer money, Batten said.

"They didn't trust us. They didn't know what we were going to do with the money," he said.

After the public comment period, several school board members made comments of their own about the situation. Board Chairman Reginald Kenan asked that everyone keep the discussion civil, even in electronic communication format such as e-mail.

"There's a lot of blame pointed," he said, and even people with dissenting opinions "must learn to respect one another."

Kenan remarked that some people might be uneducated about how the school board's budget works, and encouraged others to learn about it.

Board members Emily Manning and Chuck Farrior said they would not support dismissing the judgment.

"I need to do a little bit more soul searching," Farrior said.

Mrs. Manning, who plans to leave the board in November, said that she stuck by her decision and that her 20 years of service on the board have been dedicated solely to helping the county's children.

"Every single day of that 20 years, my thoughts have been about the children of Duplin County," she said.

The board does have a mission, vision and direction for the school system, but requires money to make that happen, Mrs. Manning said.

For the second time, board member Jennings Outlaw made a motion that the board dismiss the $4.8 million judgment against the county. The motion failed to get a second at the board's last meeting, but this time Hubert Bowden seconded the motion, saying he had determined it was the right decision. The vote did not pass, with Outlaw and Bowden voting for the measure and the other four board members dissenting.

The board members heard a budget presentation requesting $12.5 million in local funding for current expense, $1.7 million in capital outlay and $40.5 million in new school construction, but did not approve it. The budget included increases to fund 26 existing teacher positions, new school furniture and library books, $350,000 in fuel for transportation and $60,000 to help fix drainage problems at North Duplin Junior/Senior High School.

After holding an executive session, the school board determined to re-examine the original proposed budget, about $4 million less in local funding than the budget's second draft. The board will meet again Thursday at 7:30 p.m. to discuss the budget request.

The Duplin County Board of Commissioners will also resume budget talks Thursday, at 9 a.m.