08/07/08 — Duplin court bound

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Duplin court bound

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 7, 2008 1:59 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Education filed a lawsuit in Duplin County Superior Court on Wednesday against the county Board of Commissioners, seeking an unspecified amount of money.

School leaders claim the commissioners have not provided enough money to operate the county school system this year, as required by state law. A finding against the county could mean higher taxes, since state law can force commissioners to raise taxes to come up with the money, if necessary.

The filing came less than 24 hours after a mediator in the dispute between the two boards announced that an impasse had existed as of Aug. 1 -- the mediation deadline.

The school board has asked for a jury trial.

The law requires local officials to put the case on the front burner. It calls for the case to be scheduled for the first succeeding term of Superior Court, and it takes precedence over all other business of the court. If that is not possible, a special term of Superior Court will be convened.

The next session of Duplin County Superior Court is schedule to start Aug. 18.

County Manager Mike Aldridge noted that a resolution attached to the lawsuit and marked "Exhibit A" is the same one the school board gave to commissioners in June that triggered the mediation.

Aldridge said that indicated to him that the school board had not reconsidered the issue even though commissioners had appropriated some additional funding. Aldridge said commissioners had hoped their actions would prompt the school board to reconsider its court option.

Commissioners are expected to be briefed on the suit following strategy session between county attorney Wendy Sivori and education specialist attorney Neil Yarborough of Fayetteville.

The school board is seeking court determination of the amount of money needed "from sources under the control of commissioners to maintain a system of free public schools," as is required by North Carolina statutes.

It also asks for a judgment ordering commissioners to appropriate such additional amount(s) to the schools "together with all other appropriate relief allowed by law."

And the lawsuit also seeks to have the costs of the action borne by the commissioners.

In the lawsuit, the Board of Education renews its contentions that lead to the mediation.

School board members said that commissioners' school appropriations in the 2008-09 budget were less than requested by the school board.

The commissioners came up with more money for the schools since approving a county budget for the year but school officials considered the sum insufficient.

The Board of Education had sought $13.2 million in local current expense funds. The county budget as approved in June provided $6.9 million -- the second year in a row the schools' budget had been cut.

School board members have said the system needs $9.5 million just to stay even.

During the joint session, school board attorneys said another $3 million was needed for new positions, programs and expenses for a total of $12.6 million.

Commissioners first appropriated an additional $425,000 on June 30. It added another $375,000 in current expense funds on July 28. It also agreed to appropriate $1,010,203 in additional capital outlay (not locally funded) and to seek $1.9 million in state lottery construction funding.

To date the county has provided about $7.7 million in local current expense funding.