09/12/08 — Jury gives Duplin schools $4.8 million

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Jury gives Duplin schools $4.8 million

By Steve Herring
Published in News on September 12, 2008 1:50 PM

KENANSVILLE -- A jury decided Thursday afternoon that the Duplin County commissioners will have to provide an additional $4,795,784 in local current expense funding to the county's schools, which could mean a 16-cent increase in local property taxes.

Both sides took their own spins on the decision, hinting that the resolution to the case could provide an opening for dialogue between the school board and commissioners. And one warned that unless a sound funding plan is worked out, that the two sides could be fated to end up in court again.

The jury of nine women and three men deliberated for about five hours before returning the verdict that failed to include any of the some $63 million the schools had sought for its capital outlay fund.

How the county will pay the additional funding remains to be worked out. A penny on the county's tax rate of 79 cents per $100 of value generates about $300,000, meaning that the $4.8 million verdict could require a 16-cent increase in the county's property tax rate.

The $4.8 million will increase the level of local funding to about $12.5 million -- the amount sought by the school board .

The verdict ended a month-long trial in a school-funding dispute that stretches back to early June. The dispute went to trial after mediation failed to resolve the issue.

Testimony concluded Wednesday afternoon and when court resumed Thursday morning Superior Court Judge Thomas Haigwood issued instructions to jurors.

"It is absolutely necessary that you apply the law as I give it to you, not as you think the law should be," Haigwood said. "You are the sole judge of the credibility of each witness. All of the evidence has been presented. Your duty is to decide what evidence is the true facts of the case."

He told jurors not to be swayed by pity, public opinion or how their decision would affect commissioners, the school board or county.

"Under state law it is the Duplin County Board of Education's duty to evaluate the school system needs and apply to the Duplin County Board of Commissioners to supply funds for the needs," Haigwood said. "The board of education must spend those funds within the categories to best meet school needs. The sole issue in this case is to determine what additional amount of money, if any, is needed from sources under the control of the Duplin County Board of Commissioners to maintain a system of free public schools in Duplin County for fiscal year 2008-09."

At one point in its deliberations, the jury sent a message to the judge asking whether a partial award could be made in the capital outlay portion of the lawsuit. Jurors wanted to know if its option was "zero or $67 million."

Before bringing the jurors back into the courtroom to read the verdict, Haigwood warned the audience that he would "not tolerate any disruptions in courtroom."

"I was surprised by that amount (awarded)," said Commission Chairman Harold Raynor. "I don't have any other comment at the present time."

Commissioner Zettie Williams said there should not be any "ill will" because of the case.

When asked for her comment, School Board Chairman Emily Manning said, "Not yet."

After reading the verdict, Haigwood said he was reserving jurisdiction over the case. He made no ruling on a request by school board attorneys that legal fees be borne by the county.

"We dodged the big bullet," county attorney Neil Yarborough said. "There were two seconds there between the $4.8 million and zero when I was nervous. I do not believe the statutes require attorney fees. He is retaining jurisdiction to consider issues that might arise later."

Yarborough noted that the judge's final written judgment would be filed within 10 days to two weeks. Each side then has 10 days to appeal the decision.

Both claim Thursday's result was a victory.

"They are out $63 million," he said. "I feel good about this. Maybe we should not say who won, rather I prefer it as acceptable results. We dodged a $63 million bullet. I said early on that nobody wins these cases because of the divisiveness they bring in the community. There is no winner. Maybe this will be a watershed experience to bring people together."

"The verdict that came back today is one small step for high school students and certainly a giant leap for our kindergartners," school board attorney David Phillips said. "This will give us funds to ensure that we can begin to provide essential educational instruction and programs to get our kids on track so that we can provide the best possible education for our students even though the jury didn't provide funds for capital outlay."

He expressed hope there would be a continued dialogue with county commissioners in an attempt to come up with a mutually agreeable plan that will recognize facility needs to the end that "we can secure funding in new construction in our three project areas."

School board attorney Richard Schwartz said the school system continues to have issues with overcrowding at B.F. Gray School at Albertson and at Charity Middle School at Warsaw.

"It helps to have current expense now and we have an opportunity to work with county commissioners in a positive way as demonstrated in court," he said. "We will continue to focus on a new high school. We are thrilled (with the verdict) this will establish a new flow of current expense to enable schools to do wonderful things for kids and employees."

He noted the school had experienced an 81 percent increase in current expense since commissioners' original appropriation of $6,927,527 in June. Commissioners added $800,000 during mediation. The additional $4.8 million awarded by the jury makes the total increase of 81 percent.

Capital outlay has increased 70 percent from the original appropriation of $1.45 million to mediation when commissioners added an additional million dollars.

The schools' facilities needs remain, Schwartz said.

"The message the jury sent was that this is not the way to fund them," he said. There has to develop a sound funding plan or we will be back here next year."