09/23/10 — Duplin board rejects county settlement offer

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Duplin board rejects county settlement offer

By Catharin Shepard
Published in News on September 23, 2010 1:46 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Despite a two-hour discussion and half a dozen motions, the Duplin County Board of Education was unable to approve any variation of a school funding memorandum proposed by the county commission.

Superintendent Dr. Austin Obasohan offered multiple recommendations seeking some board action on the issue, but no vote came closer than a 3-3 deadlock to approving any variation of the memorandum.

The board members ultimately voted to send Obasohan back to the county commissioners to seek clarification and possible alteration of the memorandum of understanding.

Obasohan initially recommended approving a variation of the memorandum of understanding. He asked the board members to consider requesting that instead of putting $8.3 million in current expense funding and $1.7 million in capital outlay funding as proposed in the memorandum, the commissioners put $8.8 million in current expense -- essentially the school system's operating budget -- and $1.2 million in capital outlay, used only for school maintenance work.

The $10 million would remain unchanged from the commissioners' offer, but would be divided differently to allow the school board more freedom spending it, Obasohan said.

"We are accepting this offer. We're just saying this is how we would prefer to have it," he said.

The superintendent also sought to secure the agreement for a minimum of five years, with the hope that the funding agreement would be permanent. Over that five-year period, the board would receive at least an additional $5.5 million, more than covering the $4.8 million lawsuit judgment against the county.

However, the board members were split on several issues -- moving the roughly $500,000 from one account to another, whether to secure the agreement for a minimum number of years and the source of the funds.

Board Chairman Reginald Kenan expressed concern that the full amount of the funding, which he believed as outlined in the memorandum to be 40 percent of the county's ad valorem taxes, apparently did not come entirely from that source and did not amount to the full 40 percent. As proposed, the $1.7 million in capital outlay is state money that does not come directly to the school system, but by state law must be given to the schools anyway, he said.

County Commissioner David Fussell, who spoke briefly at the meeting, said his understanding was "if we get $100 from a citizen, the board would get $40 of it."

The problem may be with the memorandum's wording, which cites that the funding could come from ad valorem taxes and other sources, County Manager Mike Aldridge said.

Aldridge, who also attended the meeting, said in his opinion, the wording issue could potentially have been clarified beforehand. However, the county administrative staff has not "vetted" the memorandum that was approved by the commissioners, he said.

Board of Education member Chuck Farrior said he was not in favor of setting a time limit on the agreement.

"I really don't want to see a time limit put on it. It needs to be forever," he said.

However, he also very much wanted to see something come out of the meeting that Obasohan could take back to the commissioners, he added.

"I know some of you want further discussion. I really think time is of the essence. I really encourage you to consider the proposal that's on the table," he said.

The proposal would settle the lawsuit judgment in a way the county could afford, Farrior said.

Several of the motions also attempted to approve, without variation, the memorandum of understanding as proposed by the commissioners, but additionally requested Obasohan to go back to the board and ask to shift the $500,000 from capital outlay to current expense, or negotiate the time limit of the agreement.

"I think there's been a very good proposal on the table," board member Jennings Outlaw said.

But he was also unsure about imposing a time limit on the agreement, and would rather keep the full $1.7 million in capital outlay to support school maintenance, he said.

"We have not done a good job of maintaining our schools," Outlaw said.

The money would not be "safe" in current expense - "we'll spend it on other expenses," he said.

Board member Emily Manning explained her caution in voting for the motion as a concern for the children of Duplin County.

"I just want to know that I am not cheating the students," she said.

Mrs. Manning, who plans to step down from the board this year, said she would not be comfortable leaving without knowing she fought for the students "every step of the way."

Board member Hubert Bowden again expressed his opinion that the two boards could have worked out an appropriate school funding agreement without the lawsuit, and wondered "how we got to this point."

"There shouldn't have been a lawsuit in the first place," he said.

Obasohan encouraged the board to "meet halfway," but the members did not approve any version of the memorandum.

"For the life of me, I cannot understand why you would turn it down," Fussell said, addressing the school board. "... We have offered you every cent we feel like the citizens of Duplin County can afford."