published Thursday, March 3rd, 2011

Mediation experts weigh in on school board-commission feud


by Dan Whisenhunt

Neither side arguing over who should control millions of dollars generated by tax-break agreements thinks the issue will go to court.

But the ratcheting rhetoric turns on issues of whether the Hamilton County Commission’s plan to retain the money for the school construction is legal and whether the commission has any say in how the Board of Education spends money.

County commissioners scored a victory Monday when the state attorney general ruled in their favor.

Some local conflict mediators, who help settle disagreements for a living, said the dispute between the commission and school board is fundamentally about control. The County Commission funds the school board’s budget and the board spends it.

“Like all conflicts, they’re rooted in the need to be right and the lack of expression,” said Mary Ann Zaha, a local conflict mediator.

She urged both parties to move from needing to be right into “seeking to understand rather than seeking to be understood.”

The mediators said if school board members and commissioners are willing, mediation could be a cheap and effective way to settle the dispute. A court battle could be lengthy and costly, they said.

“It’s generally considered one of the big advantages of mediation,” said Joe Manuel, a local attorney who handles mediation cases.

But school board and county officials are confident they can work out the issues without help.

Commission Chairman Larry Henry said the commissioners “need to be our own mediators and work this out ourselves.”

The school board and County Commission are at odds over who should control money from payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreements, known as PILOTs. Such agreements are given to new businesses such as Volkswagen and Amazon to lure them to the area. The agreements give businesses a break on property taxes for a certain number of years, but they must pay the share of property tax that is slated for schools.

School officials want to use $6 million in PILOT money from the Volkswagen deal to balance their budget, but county officials want to earmark all the money for school construction.

County Commissioner Jim Fields, an attorney who also is a mediator, said mediation is cheaper than going to court and “always a viable option.”

about Dan Whisenhunt...

Dan Whisenhunt covers Hamilton County government for the Times Free Press. A native of Mobile, Ala., Dan earned a degree in broadcast journalism from the University of Alabama. He won first place for best in-depth news coverage in the 2010 Alabama Press Association contest; the FOI-First Amendment Award in the 2007 Alabama Press Association contest; first place for best public service story in the Alabama AP Managing Editors contest in 2009 for economic coverage; and ...

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