Over the last two weeks – ever since an in-school group attack on a 14-year-old Southern Guilford High School student – there’s been a very lively debate between Guilford County commissioners and Guilford County School officials.
Each claim the other has been responsible for delays in the school’s spending of $10 million that the Board of Commissioners approved for school security back in March of 2018.
Much of that money still hasn’t been spent more than three years later.
At a Thursday, June 3 meeting between the Board of Commissioners and top school officials, Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras said several times that former Guilford County Manager Marty Lawing refused to free up much of the money the schools were trying to obtain. That claim seemed to be a big surprise to the commissioners in the room and Lawing wasn’t there to respond because he resigned a few days before Christmas.
At other times over the pasts two years, school officials have said that the Board of Commissioners has been the culprit causing school security spending to drag on.
Commissioner Justin Conrad, after the 2018 mass school shooting in Parkland, Florida, made the motion to give the schools $10 million for security. It was clear when Conrad made his motion, over three years ago, that he and the other commissioners were making the move in order to provide money to the school system quickly to improve security.
Conrad said this week that he’s been very disappointed with recent public remarks from Contreras that continue to push the idea that county staff or the Board of Commissioners has played a role in those funds not yet being spent.
Conrad recently requested a timeline from county staff that laid out all actions taken by the Board of Commissioners to move the money as well as all the communications between the county and the schools on the $10 million. Conrad said that timeline shows clearly that the county has not been impeding the schools in regard to spending the money.
Conrad said one particularly egregious accusation is that the former Republican-led Board of Commissioners – in power until late 2020 – stonewalled spending and did so because of partisan politics.
Recently, WFMY News 2’s Jess Winters asked Contreras how long it usually takes for the schools to receive local funds.
“Not this long,” Contreras replied. “It’s been difficult, but we are optimistic about the new board of county commissioners. Sometimes things are lost in translation and I really, sincerely believe that commissioners thought that money was being allocated when it was not.”
The “old” board was one made up of a Republican majority that included Conrad. Even though the Republican-led boards increased school funding every year and agreed to put a $300 million school bond on the ballot during a pandemic, many school advocates argue that the Republican-led board never did enough. When Contreras said on News 2 that she was optimistic about the new board, Conrad said he didn’t appreciate the implication that the Republican boards of the past haven’t worked with the schools on school security.
“It has never been partisan,” Conrad said. “It just hasn’t.”
He said every commissioner on the board of both parties makes school safety a priority and has shown that in regard to this $10 million. According to Conrad, the Republicans on the Board of Commissioners along with the Democrats had worked very well together on getting this money to the schools and encouraging school officials to use it.
“Every vote we ever took on this was unanimous – every vote,” Conrad said. “This isn’t a partisan issue and it’s disappointing that someone would try and inject partisanship when there isn’t any.”
Conrad added, “I made the statement that, if you’re an individual in the public eye – whether an elected official or not – you need to be working on partnerships, not partisanship.”
He said that when school officials come out and incorrectly say that county commissioners and county officials have been the hold up, that’s not working on being a good partner.
“It’s frustrating because it’s just not accurate,” Conrad said.
After Contreras made the claim at a budget work session in early June that Lawing had been holding the spending up – and after hearing other allegations that Guilford County staff and commissioners had been the problem – Conrad made a request to the Guilford County Clerk to the Board’s Office to compile a comprehensive timeline of the commissioners’ actions and emails regarding the $10 million.
Conrad said that that information from the clerk verified that the county wasn’t the hold-up. Conrad also said this week that, if it were the case that Lawing had been holding up the money, one has to ask why school officials hadn’t been pressing new County Manager Mike Halford on the same matter?
Conrad said Halford began as the county manager at the start of the year and it is now well into June. He said that, from the timeline he received and from conversations he has had with county staff, the schools have not been making requests of Halford regarding the remaining portion of the $10 million that the county allocated in 2018.
In several meetings between the Board of Commissioners and the school board over the last two years, county commissioners have repeatedly asked school officials why it is taking so long for the schools to spend the money.
This back and forth between the county and the school system, and the “finger-pointing,” comes at a time when the Guilford County Board of Commissioners is in the process of determining how much money the county should give the school system in the upcoming fiscal 2021-2022 budget.
Guilford County currently spends almost half of its budget on Guilford County Schools, and Halford’s county budget proposal for 2021-2022 calls for the largest increase in school funding in decades. However, school officials and school advocates say the schools need millions more than Halford is recommending.