Commissioners, school officials hear from school of government

Seeking better ways to see the other side

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The Harnett County Board of Commissioners and officials from Harnett County Schools were joined by faculty from the School of Government at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in an attempt to find a better understanding between the two sides, which have been at odds over school construction financing issues.

Kara A. Milonzi, an attorney and faculty member of the school, came to Lillington Monday morning to offer insight in how the two boards can better understand the other’s role in the financial process involved in keeping public schools successful and within state mandates.

“I’ve been asked to talk about the legal relationship between counties and school boards, particularly around local funding for schools,” Milonzi said. “The school of government is a little unique. We don’t operate in the same way as most faculty, departments or schools at a university. Our primary mission is to help state and local government officials in North Carolina.”

Milonzi offered a broad mix of questions to both sides and information related to not only each board’s role in the school funding process, but what the state mandates and expects. She, by no means, came to act as mediator or offer specific solutions to various problems.

“What our role at the school is, is to essentially be like Switzerland, to the extent possible,” she said. “We do our best to interpret the law, as-is. We don’t make any policy recommendations, we don’t weigh-in on any issues, whether it be at the General Assembly or in local issues. But we do our best to help local officials understand what the legal basis is for the decisions they may be making.”

One thing Milonzi was able to provide to the group, which featured four county commissioners, HCS Superintendent Dr. Aaron Fleming, Assistant Superintendent Brooks Matthews, HCS Board Attorney Charlie Bullock and County Manager Paula Stewart, was the legal aspects involved in school financing as well as encouragement to simply communicate.

“I’m certainly not going to be in a position to give you a magical path to navigating a relationship that’s tricky, almost by design,” she said. “But I can share what others have done to help them navigate the relationship, given the framework you all have to work under.”

The session came as a welcome intervention between two boards which have, at times, been at odds over finances, especially when it came to new schools.

The Harnett County Board of Commissioners approved the construction of two new elementary schools recently and offered to host Tuesday’s session in the wake of the negotiations between the two panels which eventually resulted in the new schools.

Officials from both sides believe the meeting was a first step in making progress toward a better joint understanding and future joint cooperation.

“I think the session went very well,” Stewart said. “The information was needed to be heard by everybody, so we can come to consensus.”

Stewart said she recognized the need for the two groups — Harnett County administration and Harnett County Schools — to find the common ground Tuesday’s session was trying to inspire.

“I think we all know we need to meet more,” she said. “I think we all know we need to discuss the budget earlier and make them part of the process. So we’ve already started some measures to bring the school board into our capital improvement process. We’re hoping this will make things better.”

Fleming was quick to agree with Stewart, recognizing the need for the communication which was stressed during the session by Milonzi. And the cooperation she was attempting to initiate as well.

“I think the key or the main theme you heard was cooperation between the two elected boards,” Fleming said. “And certainly the working relationship between the superintendent and county manager which is already good.”

Fleming stressed how the relationship between himself and Stewart can have a ripple effect on the entire process.

“We understand, too, that our relationship can carry on to conversations with our respective boards on some of the things we want to do in Harnett County,” he said. “I think Paula and I have talked about the fact we do want to meet more.”

That was something Board of Commissioners Chairman Gordon Springle agreed with as well. He said he believed their meeting set a foundation for better cooperation and communication, but was disappointed in the fact that no members of the school board were in attendance.

“The information was very beneficial,” he said. “I guess I’m a little disappointed that we didn’t have any school board members here to hear what we heard. But, on the other hand, I still think it’s going to take cooperation between the county manager and the superintendent to make this whole thing work.”

All three officials agreed the session was a possible springboard to help both sides move beyond the past, a past which has often seen a stalemate develop between the two panels in certain areas.

“I have no doubt that we’re working in the same direction,” Springle said. “How we get there has always been an issue. But there’s no doubt everybody wants to do what’s best for the students of Harnett County.”

Fleming echoed Springle’s sentiments and added both sides are very aware of the complexities and the dynamic between the two boards.

“I think you’ve got two boards who are very passionate about what they’re doing,” Fleming said. “You have a school board that is very passionate for getting new school buildings, providing opportunities for students and you have a board of commissioners that has a responsibility for more than just education or one or two departments.”

Fleming said he doesn’t believe the animus between the two boards really exists on any level. He indicated he believes it is more a matter of each panel trying to do what’s best for the county and for the students in Harnett County Schools.

“I think the relationship between the two boards is good and always has been,” Fleming said. “I think what it is, it comes down to passion and to be able to fund that passion. School boards focus on education and a board of commissioners focuses on all county departments, and because of that, they do have to fund more than education and I think our school board realizes that.”

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