08/06/08 — Duplin commissioners, schools appear to be headed to court

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Duplin commissioners, schools appear to be headed to court

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 6, 2008 1:37 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County residents should know today whether the county Board of Education will file a lawsuit against county commissioners over local school funding.

School board attorney Dave Phillips told the News-Argus early today that today is the deadline for such an action.

He declined further comment other than to say that "stuff is in the works," and that he would have a definitive response by late afternoon.

The door to a possible court battle was opened Tuesday afternoon when an impasse was declared in the mediation dispute between the two boards.

Should it go to court the complaint could be heard by a judge or either side might ask for a trial by jury. The court could order the county to raise taxes to provide the necessary school funding should the decision favor the school board.

Any such ruling could be appealed.

More than $75,000 already has been spent in attorney fees -- some $64,000 by the school board alone.

The declaration of an impasse in the month-old funding dispute was made late Tuesday afternoon by mediator Andy Little of Chapel Hill. However, Friday was the deadline to conclude mediation with agreement by both boards to extend the process. No such agreement was made.

His two-sentence letter was not unexpected by county commissioners who on Monday said they were puzzled as to why they had heard nothing from Little in the week following the final mediation session.

"I hereby declare an impasse to mediation between the Duplin County Board of Commissioners and the Duplin County Board of Education effective August 1, 2008 at 5 p.m.," Little wrote in his letters.

Little added that he had sent copies of the letter to board attorneys and Judge Rusty Lainer, senior resident judge for the Fourth Judicial District.

School board Chairman Emily Manning declined comment.

"I cannot talk about the mediation. You will have to talk to our attorney," she said.

Commission Chairman Harold Raynor said he was not surprised by Little's decision.

"Not really, not really," he said.

Raynor added that he still hopes litigation can be avoided.

During commissioners' Monday meeting county attorney Wendy Sivori said it appeared the mediation statute had been violated by Little, who had failed to contact the board prior to the Aug. 1 deadline.

She said that in her opinion the five-day time limit started "last Tuesday because Monday night I