08/05/08 — Duplin county - school mediation stalled

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Duplin county - school mediation stalled

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 5, 2008 1:45 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Aug. 1 deadline to conclude mediation between the Duplin County Board of Commissioners and the county Board of Education has passed, but as of 5 p.m. Monday, commissioners said they remain unsure of the mediation's status.

During their Monday meeting, commissioners expressed puzzlement and some concern that it had been a week since they last heard from the mediator, who is acting as the go-between in the dispute with the school board over local funding.

Some commissioners went as far as to say that the mediation has reached an impasse in the absence of any action to extend the deadline and the lack of communications from mediator Andy Little of Chapel Hill.

By law, if the mediation has failed to broker an agreement between the two boards, the next step would be for the school board to seek court action.

State law allows mediation to be extended past the deadline if agreed to by both boards.

No such agreement has been reached.

"The last thing he (Little) said (at last Monday's mediation) was that 'it looks like it will not be resolved and that tomorrow (last Tuesday) it will be an impasse,'" Commissioner L.S. Guy Jr. said.

"This (mediation) is a major thing," Guy said. "It is attracting a lot of attention and it does not seem it is being done in a timely manner. We have employed a professional mediator who is bound by statute to keep us apprised of what is going on."

County attorney Wendy Sivori said she had spoken with Fayetteville attorney Neil Yarborough last week and that he, too, had not heard from Little. The county hired Yarborough, an education specialist, last month after the school board hired a Raleigh law firm.

She said she had spoken with local school board lawyer David Phillips, who also had not heard from Little.

Legal fees reached $75,000 during the first month of mediation -- $64,000 being spent by the school board alone.

Commissioner Cary Turner asked Ms. Sivori if the statutes "had been violated."

"Yes, it appears it has," she said.

Later in the meeting, commissioners met for almost 90 minutes behind closed doors to discuss personnel and the mediation.

After returning to open session, Turner made a motion to contract with Evergreen Solutions, a Florida consulting firm, to perform a performance audit of the school board.

Turner said commissioners had been advised by their lawyers not to act on the audit while mediation was ongoing.

"The statute is clear," he said. "It (mediation) is over unless both boards are in agreement (to extend it). We have not heard from the mediator."

Ms. Sivori agreed that commissioners had not voted and that no word had been received from the school board concerning an extension.

Guy reiterated that commissioners had been advised against acting on the audit.

"It (mediation) has not been resolved and I think we are jumping the gun," he said.

Guy said if the board was willing to call for an audit on other government officials then one could be called on commissioners as well.

The motion failed by a 3-3 vote with Guy and Commissioners Reginald Wells and David Fussell voting "no."

"She has called him (Little) today and he has not called her back," board Chairman Harold Raynor told the News-Argus following the closed session. "We know nothing. You know as much as we do. Last Monday night was the last time we talked to Andy.

"He said then he would call an impasse no later from Friday and we have heard nothing since then."

"The next step is litigation," Ms. Sivori said. "That is in the school board's ballpark. If they want to file a lawsuit they can file it within five days of the impasse.

"That (the start of the five days) would be last Tuesday in my opinion because Monday night I think we went to impasse. But if the mediator didn't call it, then I think the worst-case scenario is that the impasse by statute hit August 1."

That, she said would mean the deadline to file a lawsuit would be Wednesday.

"He (Little) is required to notify the chairman of both boards and the chief superior court judge," she said. "I spoke with his (judge's) office this morning and they have not received anything."

In its resolution asking for the mediation, the school board authorized its lawyers to file such an action, "if mediation is not concluded in a manner approved by the board of education."

A judge might hear the case or either side might ask for a trial by jury.

Should the decision go against commissioners, the court could order the county to raise taxes to provide the necessary school funding.

Any such ruling could be appealed.

The school board invoked the mediation process June 18, saying that the county has failed for the past two years to provide adequate funding to support a system of free public schools.

The school board has said it needs $9.5 million in current expense funds just to operate. It requested almost $14 million in the 2008-09 budget but received just under $7 million -- the second consecutive year its budget had been cut.

Since the mediation got under way commissioners have twice voted to appropriate more funds. The first was $425,000 in current expenses. The most recent was last week when it appropriated $375,000 for current expense and $1,010,203 for capital outlay. K, correct and fill at will.No local money is included in capital outlay.

County Manager Mike Aldridge said commissioners have received no response from the school board concerning the additional money.