Recently, Guilford County Commissioner Skip Alston has been raging against fellow Guilford County commissioners because six of them – five Republicans and one Democrat – voted to limit a school bond referendum to $300 million on the November ballot while the Guilford County Board of Education had requested a $1.6 billion bond referendum.
At the Thursday, May 28 Board of Commissioners meeting, Alston launched a vitriolic attack on the Republican commissioners who voted for the $300 million cap – making Republican Commissioners Justin Conrad and Alan Branson particular targets of those attacks.
However, the Republicans haven’t always been in control of the Board of Commissioners like they are now. In fact, for the entire first part of this century – until 2012 – the Democrats were in control of the board, and, for five of those years, Alston was the chairman. During those years, Guilford County school officials stated that the Alston-led board wasn’t providing the schools with anywhere near the amount of money the school system needed for operations and for construction and repairs.
Not to mention that the Democrats also raised property taxes nearly every year from 2000 to 2012 – something the Republican-led board hasn’t done once.
Conrad seemed to have come prepared for Alston at the Thursday, May, 28 meeting. For months, Conrad has been studying county budget history – in large part to see what kind of school funding moves Alston made when he, Alston, was chairman of the board from 2008 until 2012.
During that time the board had a Democratic majority and also, during much of that time, school officials complained adamantly that the Alston-led board was drastically underfunding the schools.
At the amazingly confrontational meeting on Thursday, May 28, Conrad brought up some of that history after Alston erupted at the meeting, complaining loudly over the Republican moves pertaining to school funding. Alston had leveled some especially personal insults against Conrad, and against Branson, who made the motion to set the maximum bond fund referendum at $300 million on the November ballot.
“I just want to correct one thing you have said that was completely false,” Conrad said to Alston in the televised regular meeting last week. “You said you balanced the budgets by cutting staff and doing other things that didn’t raise taxes; but, sir, during the time that I was talking about – you cut $9 million off the county budget for education and you raised taxes from .6914 to .7874. That is a tax increase any way you cut it. At the same time, you had a rate-neutral budget that increased the budget over $10 million, and you still cut education the same year by $3.2 million. That doesn’t include the increase in lottery dollars that you received after the 07-08 years.”
(A rate-neutral budget is one where the tax rate remains the same in a year when the county’s property values have all been reappraised. Since property values are almost always higher than before, the county gets more property tax revenue even if the commissioners don’t hike the tax rate.)
At the May 28 meeting, an outraged Alston asked Conrad, “What the hell does that have to do with right now!?”
Alston said that Conrad’s analysis was totally wrong but, regardless, he added, the important question was where the board was going this year, not where it had been in the past.
“I know what happened – you don’t” Alston shouted at Conrad.
Conrad said Alston was welcome to argue with the numbers “but they came from the Budget Department.”
After the meeting, Conrad said he was just tired of Alston’s constantly a rose colored picture of what happened when the Democrats were in control of the board with regard to school funding.
“I’ve known this data for a long time,” he said. “It’s not personal; it’s not about Skip.”
Conrad added that when Alston starts hurling insults over the very difficult funding decisions commissioners are having to make in the current economic crisis, it would do him well to look in the mirror and think back in time.
“Did the school board ask you to cut their budget by $9 million?” Of course they didn’t,” Conrad said. “So get off your high horse.”
“Was he in unprecedented times during the financial crisis?” Conrad added. “I’m sure he was. Are we in unprecedented times? Absolutely. And so you have to make the best decisions you can.”
The county commissioners who approved the $300 million bond referendum at the May 28 meeting all made it clear that the board can come back in 2022 – and every two years after that – and raise more money for school construction and repair.
Conrad said some organizations may get by with “faith-based budgeting” but the county can’t – especially not in the current situation.
“My whole point was: If you’re not having economic clarity, you are going to be forced to do what he did, which is cut education and raise taxes,” Conrad said.