07/29/08 — Duplin commissioners make offer to avoid going to court

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Duplin commissioners make offer to avoid going to court

By Steve Herring
Published in News on July 29, 2008 1:42 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Calling it a "good faith" move to avoid a potentially lengthy and costly court battle, the Duplin County Board of Commissioners late Monday night appropriated more than $1.375 million for the county schools.

Commissioners also agreed to seek $1.9 million in state lottery funding for construction and said they would continue to discuss capital improvements to the school system.

The vote was 4-2 with Commissioners David Fussell and Cary Turner voting
"no." Commissioner Reginald Wells could not attend the meeting, but was contacted
by phone several times
during the session.

The commissioners and the county Board of Education are locked in a battle over money. The school board has turned to state law to request more funding for the coming year. By law, the two sides have entered into mediation to solve the disagreement. If the mediation fails, then the issue goes to court.

County Manager Mike Aldridge said he is expecting a decision today from mediator Andy Little as to whether or not the dispute has reached an impasse.

Little hand carried the commissioners' latest proposal to the school board last night. Commissioners were meeting in administrative building about a block west of the courthouse. The school board met in its building a block north of the courthouse.

As of this morning, the school board had not responded to the offer.

"I feel like the commissioners have done what they can do to meet them (the school board) halfway to offer a settlement," Aldridge said. "Whether they received it as a settlement, I don't know."

Aldridge called the Monday vote "a reasonable offer" to avoid a court case.

Along with approving the money, commissioners asked that the school board reconsider wording in its resolution that sought mediation.

In its resolution, the school board had given its lawyers the authority to proceed with legal action should the mediation fail.

Aldridge said the additional county funding should warrant the school board taking another look at the resolution and should require another vote before seeking court action.

The new local appropriation included $375,000 in current expense funding and $1,010,203 for capital outlay. Last month the board agreed to an additional $425,000 in current expense funds.

Both commissioners and the school board met in separate closed sessions Monday night to continue the mediation process initiated by the school board in June.

It was the fourth such session, with Little shuttling between the meetings.

If mediation fails to resolve the dispute, the next step would be a hearing in Duplin County Superior Court. The case could be heard by a judge or either side could ask for a jury trial.

More than $75,000 has been spent in legal fees -- $64,000 by the school board alone -- since the dispute erupted in June.

Just days after commissioners approved their 2008-09 budget the school board invoked a state law contesting the level of school funding.

The school board had sought some $13 million, but received just under $7 million -- the second year in a row its budget had been cut.

In its resolution asking for mediation, the school board said the county's funding was inadequate to provide for a free school system.

School board members have said the system requires $9 million just to operate.

The additional funding appropriated by the county thus far brings the total local amount to about $8.7 million.

Aldridge said it was his understanding that the school system will receive an additional $1 million from the state that had not been budgeted for.

"Hopefully this will resolve the school board's concerns and neither board will have to spend additional money on attorneys' fees," board Chairman Harold Raynor said.