06/24/08 — Schools, county could end up in court over funds

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Schools, county could end up in court over funds

By Steve Herring
Published in News on June 24, 2008 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Mediation teams for the Duplin County Board of Education and county commissioners will meet privately June 30 at 9 a.m. to see if the two boards will be able to resolve a dispute over school funding or whether it will fall to the courts to decide.

The two boards initiated the mediation process Monday night with a two-hour joint session at which two views of the county's public schools emerged. The meeting, held in the auditorium of the N.C. Cooperative Extension Service Building, attracted an audience of about 60 residents.

Chapel Hill attorney and professional mediator J. Anderson "Andy" Little presided.

School board attorney Brian Shaw, of the Raleigh firm of Schwartz & Shaw, and his law partner, Richard Schwartz, painted a picture of a school system lagging substantially behind the state averages in every area from per student funding to school construction, while county Manager Mike Aldridge argued that the system fares favorably when compared to school systems in the surrounding counties of Wayne, Sampson and Bladen.

"Not that it makes the county proud to be poor, but we are a poor county," Aldridge said.

Schwartz said that no county in the state, except Duplin, had cut current expense funding for two years in a row.

"The status quo is unacceptable," he said.

The school board attorneys also renewed the contention that the schools need $9 million just to stay even with last year -- some $2.1 million more than the $6.9 million commissioners approved for the 2008-09 budget.

On top of the $9 million, another $3 million is being sought for expansion projects including $2.7 million for new positions and $328,682 for new programs and expansions making the total request current expense request $12,597,514.

That does not include the $69.7 million that school officials said will be needed to fund new school construction.

Shaw said there was a misconception about capital outlaw. He said the school system was seeking no local funding for capital outlay. Rather, it wants the county to allocate the money it receives from the state that is earmarked for such use.

Shaw said the county receives about $ 4 million from the state for school capital outlay.

He said the county "receives more than it spends" for schools' capital outlay, while county officials said the school board has a $3 million fund balance it could draw upon.

The mediation was set in motion last week when the school board invoked a state law that allows it to contest the level of local funding. In a resolution, the school board called the county's funding over the last several years "inadequate."

The bulk of Monday night's session was consumed by Shaw and Schwartz as they compared how the Duplin school system fails to stack up the state averages.

Following the open session, both boards adjourned to separate conference rooms, meeting in closed sessions for about 50 minutes as Little shuttled back and forth between the meetings. No action was taken after the boards returned to open session.

The next step is next week's mediation meetings. The school board will be represented by Supt. Dr. Wiley Doby, Chairman Emily Manning, finance officer Carolyn Olivarez and the board attorneys. Commissioners will be represented by Aldridge, Chairman Harold Raynor, finance officer Teresa Lanier and board attorney Wendy Sivori.

Little, who will be the mediator for the session, said "Tonight is a public meeting, but not a public hearing. Tonight is an information session".

Little said his role in the process is that of a facilitator who tries to ensure communications between the two boards are clear.

He said he is sometimes a "referee, sometimes a problem solver and sometimes a provocateur."

If the two sides fail to reach an agreement through the mediation sessions, the next step will be in Duplin County Superior Court where the case could be heard by a judge or jury.

Once the school invokes the law, a joint meeting of the two boards must be held within seven days of the budget's adoption. Those seven days were up Monday.

The mediation is required to be completed by Aug. 1, although the law does allow it to continue past Aug. 1, provided both boards agree.

Should the mediation extend past Aug. 1, commissioners would be required by the law to appropriate funds for the school systems' current expense, "a sum of money sufficient to equal the local contribution to this fund for the previous year."

Both boards must approve any agreement reached in mediation.

If no agreement is reached, the school board may file an action in superior court within five days after the announcement of no agreement. A judge may hear the case or either board may ask for it to be heard by a jury.

The court mandates that the county levy the taxes needed to fund the schools.

In its resolution the school board instructed its attorney to file court action should the mediation results not be acceptable to the school board.

Either side may appeal the court's judgment.

"I hope we can clarify what we had hoped was clear," Schwartz said of his presentation.

Schwartz said that some people view the relationship of the school board and commissioners as a "parent/child" relationship with the school board as the child. That is not the case, he said.

"It is important that everyone recognize they are co-equals," he said.

He noted that the school system is the county's fourth-largest employer and has 15 schools and 8,987 students.

Shaw said he knew that the question of teacher and administrative supplements had been an issue in the county. He said the supplements were to attract and retain qualified teachers.

Duplin's supplements for teachers is $3,211 compared to the state average of $3,539. Supplements for principals and superintendent are well below the average, he said.

In his comments, Aldridge agreed that "there has been a lot of public discontent" about supplements. He added that the public also had been troubled by the school system's facilities plan.