07/01/08 — Olive branch extended in Duplin

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Olive branch extended in Duplin

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

KENANSVILLE -- In a surprise move Monday afternoon, Duplin County commissioners unanimously voted to appropriate an additional $425,000 for the county's public schools' current expense budget.

The new appropriation will increase school funding from $6.9 million to $7.3 million.

School officials have asked for $13 million and have said the system needs at least $9 million just to operate.

County Manager Mike Aldridge called Monday's vote a "good-faith" effort by commissioners in their efforts to reach common ground with the school board. The two sides entered into mediation last week after the school board refused to accept the original allocation and threatened to sue under state law.

The vote came shortly after the two sides ended their first session. If mediation fails, the issue goes to court.

The two sides were expected to continue to talk today.

The meetings are closed to the public.

The commissioners have hired Fayetteville lawyer Neil Yarborough to help them in the negotiations.

"We decided that if the board of education had specialists we should have one, too who is familiar with the process," Aldridge said.

Commissioners were meeting in special session Monday afternoon to close out the 2007-08 budget when they agreed to the new appropriation.

Aldridge said the county was able to cobble together the additional funding because of a surplus of some items remaining after the budget was closed out. The bulk of the new appropriation came from $100,000 in property taxes and $115,000 in motor vehicle taxes than had been budgeted to be collected.

The remainder was made up of smaller amounts from such items as salaries and retirement, he said.

All of the money would have reverted to the county's general fund budget.

Aldridge said that during the afternoon session, Commissioner Reginald Wells expressed hope that everyone involved would be able to resolve the issue in a "good resolution."

In a prepared statement, commission Chairman Harold Raynor said he was hopeful that the additional money would resolve the funding dispute.

"It is our desire going forward that the Board of Education work cooperatively with us to address the mutual funding concerns we face in educating our county's children," Raynor said.

"This is what we gave them last year and the board of education with a declining student population and the additional low-wealth and lottery money should be able to make due," Commissioner Zettie Williams said.

Aldridge declined to comment on the specifics of the mediation meeting other than to say the two teams had spent most of the time "swapping information." Most of the conversation centered on the current expense fund, he said.

Capital outlay was expected to dominate today's meeting, Aldridge added.

"At the very least one good thing that is coming out is real dialogue -- board member to board member," he said.

The board of education initiated the mediation process on June 18 when it invoked a state law that allows school boards to contest local funding.

In its resolution concerning funding, the school board called the county's funding over the past several years "inadequate" to support free public education.

Professional mediator Andy Little of Chapel Hill is overseeing the sessions.

The school board team consists of Superintendant Dr. Wiley Doby, board Chairman Emily Manning, Finance Officer Carolyn Olivarez, and the board's lawyers. The school board is represented by lawyer David Phillips as well as the Raleigh firm of Schwartz and Shaw. Representing the commissioners are Aldridge, Raynor, Finance Officer Teresa Lainer and County Attorney Wendy Sivori.

The mediation must end no later than Aug. 1. although the law does permit it to continue past that date 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."

Any agreement reached in mediation must be approved by both boards.

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

In its resolution, the school board authorized its attorneys to file action in Duplin County Superior Court "if mediation is not concluded in a manner approved" by the school board.

The court's judgment may be appealed by either side.