Duplin schools examine offer to compromise over funding
By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on June 4, 2010 1:46 PM
KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County Board of Education disagreed Thursday on a funding compromise proposed by the county commissioners.
Part of the memorandum of understanding drafted by the commissioners proposed an action that was not a legal option, the school board members were told by legal counsel.
The commissioners offered the Board of Education a choice between receiving full funding of the school system's $9.2 million current expense request for the 2010-11 school year, in exchange for "forgiving" the $4.8 million lawsuit judgment against the county, or receiving funding at last year's level as the commission takes steps to levy a supplemental tax to pay the judgment.
The commissioners were willing to do one or the other, "but cannot in good faith ask our citizens" to fund both the requested budget and the lawsuit judgment, Commission Chairman Cary Turner said.
But for legal reasons, the school board cannot forgive the judgment as a condition of receiving the funding, the board attorney said. Several members of the board argued that the judgment is a debt that must be paid regardless.
"Don't tell me that you don't understand that when there is a debt, you owe that debt," board member Emily Manning said.
Board of Education Chairman Reginald Kenan said he would like to see the matter resolved in a way that does not make taxpayers suffer, but added that he sought a more legally binding agreement that would protect the schools' funding even after the current commissioners leave their positions on the board.
"I want to see the judgment protected," he said.
However, there are "all kinds of options and ways" to fulfill the lawsuit judgment, board member Jennings Outlaw said.
The memorandum offered to raise school funding to the schools' level of need, answering the problem that led to the board suing the commissioners in the first place, he said.
Outlaw made a motion to amend and approve the commissioners' proposal, removing the option of "forgiving" the judgment, holding the judgment in abeyance for a period of time, accepting the $9.2 million funding and in subsequent years applying any additional funding above that amount to the judgment.
The problem was that the motion did not take into account future increases in the school system's funding needs, Mrs. Manning said.
The school board must look at what the schools require to educate children before deciding what to do regarding the lawsuit judgment, board member Willie Gillespie said.
"What we really have to look at is needs. Are there needs in this county that are not being met?" Gillespie said.
The board must be careful about taking away any resources that can be used for filling those needs, he said.
Farrior said voting for the motion was "a numbers decision" for him, and that the offer could ultimately provide more money for the schools than the judgment payment would provide. It could also help rebuild the trust and relationship between the two boards, he said.
"I'm tired of the fighting, I'm tired of the tension, I'm tired of the animosity," Farrior said.
The board split 3-3 on the motion, with Outlaw, Hubert Bowden and Chuck Farrior voting in favor and Kenan, Mrs. Manning and Willie Gillespie voting against it.
The board members also disagreed on whether to seek input from the central office staff regarding any judgment arrangement. Bowden and Outlaw proposed hearing from the staff, but Kenan said it must be the board's decision. The board members voted 3-3 on whether to hear from the central office staff.
Additionally, Outlaw and Turner expressed concern over the role lawyers have played in the two boards' relationship.
"We believe both boards have already spent too much money on lawyers," Turner said. "... Don't let the lawyers continue to control our relationship."
There was apparent confusion over why school board legal representative Brian Shaw attended the meeting. The board did not approve paying Shaw to attend, Outlaw said.
The board spent about an hour in closed session before discussing the funding issue and then adjourning.