07/08/05 — Boards will go to mediation

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Boards will go to mediation

By Barbara Arntsen
Published in News on July 8, 2005 1:45 PM

Superior Court Judge Jerry Braswell assigned a mediator Thursday to lead a meeting between the schools and the county regarding budget conflicts.

Mike Jones, a Goldsboro lawyer, was selected by Braswell as the mediator. The two boards will meet at 2 p.m. Monday at the Wayne County Public Library on Ash Street.

"Each body should go with the purpose of resolving differences," Braswell said.

He also said the scheduled meeting didn't prevent the two boards from working out their differences before meeting with the mediator.

Thursday's hearing was held so the judge could determine whether the school board violated the procedures set out in the law for resolving budget disputes with the county.

The commissioners, represented by County Attorney Borden Parker, said the school board had not held a meeting to determine the county funding wasn't sufficient.

Parker said an emergency meeting called by the school board earlier this week didn't meet the legal requirements for an emergency.

Dr. Steve Taylor, superintendent of schools, said the board was called to adopt the resolution, but that the matter had been discussed in a closed session in early June.

Taylor testified that he had been notified on June 28, by a staff member and by County Manager Lee Smith, that the county had appropriated an additional 5 percent to the schools, but the money wouldn't be released.

Taylor said he was confused, and felt that he needed to see a written copy of the budget. He said the written copy wasn't made available to him until Friday, July 1.

Taylor said an emergency meeting was held July 5 because the county was questioning when the school board had made its decision to contest the budget appropriation.

Parker asked what the school board discussed in closed session on June 6 regarding the county's budget.

Taylor replied that Jack Edwards, the school board's attorney, was explaining the provisions of the law that would allow the school system to contest the decision.

"Why would these steps have to be discussed under the lawyer/client privilege?" Parker asked.

Taylor stammered, saying he didn't understand, while Edwards objected to the question.

The objection was overruled, and Taylor said it was discussed in closed session because it was a legal matter.

"Whatever fits the law, we take the attorney's advice that it falls under the guideline," Taylor said.

Taylor said instructions were given by the board regarding the budget, but no action was taken. He said later the school board had reached a consensus during the closed session.

"They felt that the money proposed wasn't adequate," Taylor said.

Parker said the closed session held by the school board wasn't valid, so no consensus could be drawn from that meeting.

Parker also didn't understand how Tuesday's meeting could be declared an emergency, which he said was defined by law as being an "unexpected circumstance."

"What's unexpected?" Parker asked. "The Board of Education knew when the budget was adopted, they knew the statute."

Parker said the school board couldn't cause its own emergency.

Edwards said if there were technical violations by the school board, the court should consider whether those violations were of such magnitude that the county was adversely impacted.

Edwards said the only people who could be negatively affected by the outcome were the children in the county.

"If there was any violation of open meetings, it should be obvious that none of it was intentional," Edwards said.

Braswell said the county was tasked to adopt the budget for county agencies, which was a long and contentious process.

"People can come before the commissioners to state their case and the commissioners must decide what's in the best interest of public," Braswell said. "They are elected by the people to make that decision."

The school board, Braswell said, was elected to look after the needs of public education in the county, and its role is unique.

"The General Assembly has recognized that the Board of Education is unique in its funding needs, so they provided a way to contest the funding," Braswell said.

He said the county has the larger responsibility and the school board has more narrow responsibilities.

"This invariably causes conflict," he said.

Braswell said it was clear that the school board had not determined the money from the county was insufficient during the June 6 closed session.

"And even if it was (determined), it was premature," he said.

Braswell said the letter from school board vice chairman John Grantham on July 1 was predicated on the closed session discussion, and not by any formal action by the school board.

"But, at some point, the Board of Education recognized it hadn't made the determination," Braswell said.

The judge said when the school board recognized it hadn't formally made the determination, it took what it deemed to be corrective action by calling an emergency meeting.

"If the board had taken no action, it would have been derelict in its duties," Braswell said.

The General Assembly, Braswell said, believes that the school funding issue is so significant it provided additional processes in the law to challenge the county's budget decisions.

"That process shouldn't be circumvented by the failure to schedule the meeting," Braswell said. "Although the method was inadequate, the county wasn't adversely affected."

The judge urged the two boards to try and resolve their differences.

"There's nothing in this ruling that prevents you from coming together before meeting with the mediator," Braswell said.

Braswell said, based on Taylor's testimony, it seemed that the school board didn't completely understand the funding process.

"That doesn't mean the funding is inadequate," he said.

Braswell said he didn't know why it was so hard for the school board to figure out the county budget.

"It ought not to be that complicated," he said.

Taylor said the school board was looking forward to meeting with the commissioners to resolve differences.

"I am confident the boards can reach a consensus," Taylor said.