08/19/08 — Judge says 'no' to call for dismissal of Duplin schools lawsuit

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Judge says 'no' to call for dismissal of Duplin schools lawsuit

By Steve Herring
Published in News on August 19, 2008 1:39 PM

KENANSVILLE -- Super-ior Court Judge Thomas Haigwood Monday afternoon denied a motion to dismiss the capital outlay aspect of the Duplin County Board of Education's lawsuit against the county.

The motion was the final one of four that had been filed by the county to dismiss the suit.

While the motions were being argued, potential jurors lined the stairway and hallway leading to the courtroom. The original jury pool of 100 has been increased by 200 more.

Jury selection got under way Monday in the trial that could last as long as two weeks or more.

The three other motions to dismiss were denied during a Friday hearing during which Haigwood also denied a motion by school board attorneys to either have outside jurors hear the case or move the trial to another county.

As they did on Friday, Monday's arguments about the schools' capital outlay centered on the school board's facilities plan.

County attorneys contend the school board failed to provide information on a timely basis about the plan. They also claim the county was unfamiliar with the plan and as such was unsure about the necessary level of funding.

On the other hand, school board attorneys said commissioners knew of the plan, first approving then rejecting it. Commissioners countered that the plan had been changed during mediation and that the school board's budget included just a one-line mention of an approximately $63 million plan.

"Has everybody said what they wanted to say," Haigwood said prior to making his ruling on Monday.

Local funding has been a sore point between the two boards for the past several years.

Mediation failed to resolve the conflict leading to the lawsuit filed by the school board Aug. 6 that seeks an unspecified amount of money and asks that the cost of the legal action be borne by commissioners.

State law requires the case be fast-tracked, taking priority over all other business of the court.

A verdict against commissioners could result in the county being ordered to raise property taxes to provide more local funding.

The 2008-09 county budget allocated $6.9 million for schools -- the school board had asked for $13.2 million.

In its resolution initiating mediation, the school board called the funding inadequate to operate a free public school system.

The system needs $9.5 million in local current expense funds just to operate, school board attorneys say. They are asking for $12.579 million in local current expense funding.

During the mediation, commissioners appropriated an additional $800,000 for the school board's current expense budget and $1,010,203 to the capital outlay budget (no local funds).

To date, the county has provided about $7.7 million in local current expense funding -- some $5 million less than what is being sought. An 18-cent tax increase would be needed to fund the entire amount.