08/21/08 — Jury is still being picked in fight over funding

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Jury is still being picked in fight over funding

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 21, 2008 1:37 PM

KENANSVILLE -- A jury of eight women and four men has been seated in Duplin County Superior Court to hear the Duplin County Board of Education's lawsuit against the county commissioners.

The two sides were in the midst of selecting the first of two or three alternate jurors when court was adjourned Wednesday afternoon. Filling those seats was the first order of business this morning when court reconvened at 9:30 a.m.

The lawsuit, filed Aug. 6 after mediation between the two boards was declared at an impasse, seeks an unspecified amount of money and asks that the cost of the suit be borne by the county. The case takes priority over all other business of the court.

Meanwhile, Judge Thomas Haigwood of Greenville twice Wednesday afternoon denied attempts by school board attorneys to have the case moved to another county or to have an outside jury brought in. However, he left open the door for such action should jury selection stall -- similar to what he did last Friday when he ruled against the motion during a pre-trial motion hearing.

In both instances Wednesday, school board attorney Richard Schwartz of Raleigh argued, "We started with 11 jurors and after all day that is all we have."

That, he said, demonstrated a need to have the case moved or an outside jury brought in.

"All we want is a fair trial," he said. "In light of the way this is going it makes a compelling reason for a change of venue."

Haigwood disagreed.

"We have 12 jurors," he said. "I still have hope. We are a lot closer than we were Monday morning. We have only been here two and one-half days. I am very pleased with the progress. I have been in trials where it has taken weeks to get a jury. We have made good progress."

He noted that the reason for a significant number of people were excused from jury duty had not been directly related to pre-trial publicity.

He pointed out that school board attorneys had not used all of their allotted excuses to reject jurors.

Haigwood said he was "still holding out hope" that the two sides could reach agreement before the case goes to the jury.

As court dismissed for the day, Haigwood admonished jurors and people in the jury pool not to discuss the case among themselves or with anyone involved in the case.

He also had a warning for attorneys on both sides after county attorney Neil Yarborough of Fayetteville commented about the school board arguing it was so hated that a fair trial was impossible in Duplin County.

Haigwood said commentary concerning the character of either board "is not productive, nor helps to resolve this case. This is simply a disagreement and we are now about the legal process to settle that disagreement. Do not speak to character, at least not to me."

Local school board attorney Dave Phillips he had no seen so much "notoriety" in all of his years as a lawyer, save in some capital cases.

The jury of 12 had been selected prior to the 1 p.m. lunch break. However, after court reconvened one juror told the court she had reconsidered her early comments that she could be impartial.

She was excused and the two sides went through four potential jurors before settling on the woman's replacement. Two were rejected by the county and two by the school board.

Selection then turned to alternates -- three of whom were rejected prior to adjournment Wednesday afternoon.

The process was the same for each potential juror.

Haigwood began by asking whether they knew any of the parties involved in the case or potential witnesses and whether they were familiar with the case by way of the media or talking with other people. He asked for some personal background information. They also were asked if they could be impartial.

Attorneys for both sides then quizzed potential jurors even more about background information. School board attorneys asked the first questions. In some cases, county attorney did not get to ask questions if school board attorneys excused the jurors first.

On several occasions during jury questioning, Yarborough and local county attorney Wendy Sivori huddled with County Manager Mike Aldridge and Commissioners Zettie Williams, L.S. Guy, Reginald Wells and board Chairman Harold Raynor.

Also in the audience were school board Chairman Emily Manning, Chuck Farrior and Reginald Kenan.

Schwartz asked potential jurors if they would be bothered by the school board asking for "tens of millions of dollars" in settlement from the county. They also were questioned as to whether they had been asked to sign any petitions. Several petitions are circulating in the county including ones asking for a state investigation of the school board and for the job of schools Supt. Dr. Wiley Doby.

He asked potential jurors if they would hold the school board to a higher level of burden of proof because county commissioners were involved.

Yarborough asked jurors if they realized that just because someone filed a suit that it did not necessarily mean they "deserve anything."

He reminded them that the school board had to prove its case based on the greater weight of evidence and that as the defendant the county was not required to prove

Should the court rule against the county, commissioners could be ordered to raise property taxes to provide more local funding for the schools.

School board attorney have said that the $5 million difference in current expense funding between what had been requested by the school board and the amount budgeted by the county could amount to an 18-cent tax increase. Funding the $63 million sought for school construction would add much more.

The county's 2008-09 budget included $6.9 million for schools. The school board had asked for $13.2 million.

In a resolution that initiated the mediation, the school board called the funding inadequate to operate a free public school system.

School board attorneys said the system needs $9.5 million in local current expense funds just to operate. They are still asking for $12.579 million in local current expense funding.

During the mediation, commissioners appropriated an additional $800,000 for the school board's current expense budget and $1,010,203 to the capital outlay budget (no local funds).

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