08/26/10 — Duplin boards might be close to agreement on lawsuit

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Duplin boards might be close to agreement on lawsuit

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on August 26, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- The Duplin County commissioners voted 3-2 Monday in favor of approving an amended school funding memorandum of understanding in an attempt to reach an agreement with the Board of Education about the contested issue.

The memorandum set a benchmark ensuring the county schools will receive a minimum 40 percent of the local tax levy in the future - a decision, County Manager Mike Aldridge warned the board, that may not be sustainable.

The memorandum also stated that the county's taxpayers cannot provide that level of funding if required to pay the $4.8 million lawsuit judgment against the county, whether in a lump sum or installment payments. "We can do one or the other but not both," according to the memorandum.

Board Chairman Cary Turner introduced the memorandum and voted to approve it, along with Commissioners David Fussell and Harold Raynor. Fussell said the memorandum was a wonderful opportunity to "let bygones be bygones."

"It's a win-win situation for taxpayers as well," he said.

Raynor also spoke in support of the memorandum, and commented on his support for Superintendent Dr. Austin Obasohan.

Turner appeared before the school board three times earlier this year, presenting the board members with a similar funding offer and asking that the board vote to "forgive" the $4.8 million judgment. The school board could not agree on a course of action, but asked Obasohan to look into the lawsuit judgment and provide an action recommendation by the first meeting in September.

Board members Frances Parks and Zettie Williams voted against approving the memo. Ms. Parks said she is "100 percent for moving forward," but cited her concerns that the county administrative staff was not consulted about what rearranging the budget might require. The county should move forward together, she said.

"I don't want us to jump into something we shouldn't jump into, but if this is the answer, I don't want to hold it up," Ms. Parks said.

Ms. Williams commented that she would like to see the school board given a chance to provide its own tweaks to the memorandum.

"We should allow them the same benefits that they allowed us," she said.

Previous school board votes on the issue ended in a 3-3 tie, Turner said.

Aldridge asked the board members to allow the county staff to help with the process, and warned that a 40 percent benchmark could be unrealistic.

"I don't think you can sustain that," he said.

The memorandum also stated that the commissioners "recognize that neither of our two Boards can legally obligate future Boards" and that the commissioners "stand ready to establish a new spirit of communication and cooperation between our two Boards to properly discuss and address all the funding needs of our schools." The memorandum pointed out that the increased level of local revenue funding "automatically requires future Boards of Commissioners to fund at a level that will not jeopardize our low wealth funding."

According to the document, the commissioners will now accept, "for information purposes only," the Board of Education's request for capital construction.

The approved memorandum also stated that the board understands that the funding disputes have been "disruptive and harmful" to efforts to provide a quality education for Duplin County children.

In related action, the board voted 4-1 in favor of eliminating all currently vacant and unadvertised county jobs. The money reverted to the general fund from eliminating the positions -- which will not involve cutting filled positions -- might be used to pay the additional money to the school system. There are 26 positions currently unfilled.

The county will still pursue filling any other positions that are currently advertised as available. If needed, the board can revisit the issue at a later date on a case-by-case basis, the commissioners agreed.

The board members also asked the county staff to request receiving the 2009-10 financial audit as soon as possible this year.

The commissioners will meet in special session Aug. 31 at 9 a.m. to again discuss the Board of Education lawsuit and the 2010-11 budget.