09/13/09 — Duplin schools funding appeal takes hit from Beaufort case

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Duplin schools funding appeal takes hit from Beaufort case

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 13, 2009 2:00 AM

The North Carolina Court of Appeals will hear Oct. 1 oral arguments in the ongoing legal battle between the Duplin County Board of Education and the Duplin County Commissioners.

County attorney Wendy Sivori briefed commissioners on the court's recent decision regarding a similar lawsuit in Beaufort County.

Just as in Duplin, the Beaufort County Board of Education sued the county's Board of Commissioners regarding funding for the school system. The school system sought an additional $765,783 in funding from the county.

The case was originally decided in favor of the school system. However, once the Beaufort County case reached the court of appeals -- two years after the end of the school year for which the lawsuit was filed -- the court overturned the decision.

"I almost fell out of my chair when I heard it was reversed and remanded," Ms. Sivori said.

A section of the law allows school boards to sue county commissioners if the court "find(s) the facts as to the amount of money necessary to maintain a system of free public schools, and the amount of money needed from the county to make up this total."

The judges hearing that case found the definition of the word "needed" to be too broadly defined, Ms. Sivori said.

The 4-1-2 decision could affect the way the court handles Duplin County's case. The wording in the Beaufort County lawsuit is the same as the wording in the Duplin County lawsuit, Ms. Sivori said.

It is unlikely that the Beaufort lawsuit will be retried, Ms. Sivori said.

County officials have spoken with legal representative about the Beaufort County lawsuit decision and how it might affect Duplin's case when it goes before the court.

A reversal of the decision would come at a difficult time for the school system. Duplin County Schools lost $10 million to state budget cuts this year, dropping the county from a $56 million operating budget in 2008-09 to a $46 million budget in 2009-10. Finance officials were also forced to cut another $1.34 million from the budget.

"No, I'm not happy with it," said Dr. Wiley J. Doby, Duplin County Schools superintendent. "We didn't want to send anybody home. Our first priority is to protect the classroom and save as many jobs as we can."

At the Board of Education meeting Tuesday night, two residents raised concerns about the lawsuit and asked the board to drop the matter.

If the court finds in favor of the Board of Education, the tax rate in Duplin County will become the second highest in the state, said Jack Zoesch of Wallace.

"When that happens, that means you're not going to get new businesses," Zoesch said.

Wallace resident Hank Fry also spoke out against the lawsuit, calling attention to the $4 million in funding given annually to Duplin County due to its financial status as a low-wealth county.

"Who knew about the $4 million funding prior to the court case?" Fry said. "We have a right to know if that money is being spent wisely, judiciously."

The county tax rate will rise .13 cents in order to fund the $4.8 million that the commissioners were ordered to give to the school board in the original ruling of the case, he said.

Chairwoman Emily Manning thanked the residents for their input, but none of the board members responded to the public comments.

To the superintendent's knowledge, the school board has not discussed any possibility of dropping the lawsuit, and Doby said he felt confident the school board's legal representation at the appeal would handle the case.

The Duplin County case is the first of two on the docket of the state Court of Appeals. The oral arguments are set to begin at 9:30 a.m., Oct. 1 in Raleigh.