Appeals court hears dispute over funding

Published 8:22 pm Friday, August 24, 2007

By Staff
County, school system make their arguments to a three-judge panel
News Editor
RALEIGH — Beaufort County commissioners and the Beaufort County Board of Education went another round Thursday in their $765,000 funding dispute — this time at the N.C. Court of Appeals in Raleigh.
Neil Yarborough, the commissioners’ attorney in the appropriation litigation, argued that a jury erred in 2006 when it awarded the school system additional money, saying that the county had met its “designated responsibilities” in funding for the school term in question. Yarborough added that the county had little time to prepare a defense and that judges on the appellate court might want to look at the state constitution’s language so that other boards of education and counties will be doing “more cooperating than suing.”
Brian Shaw and Richard Schwartz, the school system’s attorneys in the matter, did not appeal the jury’s verdict. They told judges Sanford Steelman Jr., Rick Elmore and Donna Stroud the July 2006 decision should stand because that jury “answered a question of need.”
Last summer, the Beaufort County Board of Education sued commissioners for $2.9 million, contending those additional funds were needed to adequately operate the schools for the 2006-2007 term. A Beaufort County jury awarded the schools $765,783, bringing their county allotment to $10.2 million instead of the first-appropriated $9.4 million for the school year. Both sides initially appealed the verdict, but the school board dropped its appeal in November 2006, instead taking commissioners back to court in December to seek interim funding while the county moved forward with its appeal. Superior Court Judge William Griffin awarded the schools $412,457 then. The whole amount awarded by the jury in July 2006 will be considered in the appellate case.
Yarborough said Thursday that when he’s appealing a verdict, he tries to “cobble together” a strong case based on two or three points, but that he thought the funding verdict should be revisited based on multiple holes in the case.
Yarborough said county commissioners have the responsibility to fund the “activities assigned to them,” and that Beaufort County’s leaders had met that obligation with their original $9.4 million allocation for the schools.
Steelman would later ask Shaw how the school board answered the question of need. “What keeps a body from asking for the moon?” Steelman asked.
Shaw replied the school board is fiscally responsible in that doesn’t submit budgetary requests to the county without first deeming them as “necessary.” Shaw also argued the jury appropriately answered those questions of need in July 2006.
Yarborough said he had only a week to prepare his case before the funding dispute went to trial in 2006.
Schwartz said cases involving schools are, by nature, fast-tracked, because the law allows it.
Schwartz said the jury had to decide “what is sufficient.”
After arguments were finished, both sides indicated they were satisfied with the way things went in court.
Yarborough said he, too, feels confident, but for different reasons. The more the three-judge panel looks at the original case, “the more holes they’ll see,” he said.
Outside the courtroom, Commissioner Stan Deatherage said he believes the county will prevail this time around.