08/22/08 — Opening statements heard in Duplin school funding case

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Opening statements heard in Duplin school funding case

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 22, 2008 1:37 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Duplin County school officials indicated they will be seeking "tens of millions of dollars" in their lawsuit against the Duplin County Board of Commissioners.

The trial involving the two boards started Thursday after a jury has been seated and opening arguments made.

The jury is composed of eight women and four men, with four alternates -- a man and three women.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Haigwood of Green-ville is hearing the case.

The case went to court after the two sides were unable to reach an agreement over school funding for this year. School board members filed a grievance in July, saying the commissioners had not appropriated enough money to operate the county schools in a responsible manner, as is required by state law. Arbitration failed to resolve the issue.

Haigwood denied the motion for mistrial after school board lawyers complained that opening comments made by county lawyer Neil Yarborough about taxes were an attempt to inflame the jury.

Yarborough said he had not planned to talk about taxes until school board lawyer Richard Schwartz "opened the door" by mentioning taxes in his opening statement.

Haigwood chastised both lawyers for their extended opening statements, reminding them that opening statements are intended to lay the groundwork for later questioning and testimony, not to start their arguments.

Yarborough had also spoken of petitions signed by county residents opposing the school facility plan. Haigwood told Yarborough that the petitions were irrelevant.

"This case is not about petitions," Haigwood said. "Those petitioners will not decide the case. These 12 people will."

He admonished Schwartz for his opening statement as well.

"The opening statement of the plaintiffs was in large part not an outline of evidence in this case," Haigwood said. "It had significant parts that were argument and persuasion -- that is not an opening statement. An opening statement outlines what you think the evidence will be. I told that to the jurors. It is not a time for argument or persuasion. Mr. Yarborough, for reasons known only to him, did not object, if he had, I certainly would have sustained."

He told Yarborough, "Your opening statement, when you started going beyond what evidence will be presented, opened the door for him to argue and persuade the jury in his opening statement. However, I do not believe it opened the doors for issues clearly not related. The issue is what amount of money it needed to maintain a free public school system in Duplin County. That is what this trial is about. It is not about what some petitioners may think what the amount is, that is for the jury."

The jury was instructed to ignore comments made during the opening arguments about protests or potential tax increases should the commissioners be forced to come up with more money for the schools.

"Evidence comes from the mouths of witnesses," Haigwood told the jurors.

The first witness to testify was school Superintendent Dr. Wiley Doby, who spent most of his time on the stand describing his background and what he discovered when he took over as superintendent two years ago. Doby said he took over a school system of old buildings and students who were not performing as well as their counterparts statewide.

He said students' test scores have shown improvement over the past two years. Even though 53.6 percent of eighth-graders pass the end-of-grade tests that still means almost 47 percent do not, he said.

"That is unacceptable to me as superintendent," he said.

Doby testified that the old buildings could adversely impact students' grades and behavior.

Generally older facilities take more to maintain and are not cost-efficient, he said.

During the witness selection process, one potential juror, a Hispanic man, admitted to Haigwood that he was in the country illegally. Since the man is not a citizen of the U.S., he was excused from jury duty and ordered to go with a bailiff to see about contacting the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service.

It was the second time in as many days that a potential juror had admitted to being in the country illegally.