State’s high court hears dispute

Published 9:52 pm Wednesday, September 10, 2008

By Staff
Revolves around county’s funding for school system
Staff Writer
RALEIGH — Lawyers, some representing Beaufort County’s school board and others representing its Board of Commissioners, argued Tuesday morning in front of the state’s Supreme Court about whether the school system can force the county to fund teacher incentives and other operating expenses.
The county’s lawyers contend the current school-funding system is unallowable under the North Carolina constitution, while the school board’s lawyers said the system is imperfect and slow, but it is well within the confines of the law.
When the school system didn’t get as much state funding as it had expected, the school board asked the commissioners to make up the difference between what it requested and what it received.
The commissioners were already covering capital expenses — things including building construction and maintenance — and giving some money for operating expenses such as teacher salaries and other similar costs. But they didn’t want to give as much as the school board requested.
So, the school board sued and won hundreds of thousands of dollars, though not as much money as it had requested.
The county government appealed, lost and appealed again to the N.C. Supreme Court.
The county’s attorneys argued that the state constitution requires the General Assembly to decide how much money the county gives the schools, and that the school system wasn’t allowed to ask a jury to decide how much was appropriate.
The county’s lawyers argued that the General Assembly had abdicated its responsibility to determine how much money schools should receive by asking a jury to decide whether the school board had as much funding as “necessary” to run free public schools.
The county’s attorneys also argued that the General Assembly had already decided the county should cover capital expenses such as buildings, but had not ordered the county to cover operating costs.
The county’s annual contributions to the school system’s operating costs, they said, were covered under another line in the state constitution that invites local governments to give more to the school system than the state mandates.
The school board’s lawyers countered that the funding statute implies that counties also are to cover operating expenses.
Schwartz said the law, as it works now, gives school boards an opportunity to make sure schools are not shorted by county boards.
The school board’s lawyers also said that the statute had been followed to the letter of the law during the mediation and litigation process that resulted in the jury’s award to the schools.
During the county’s lawyers’ argument, the jurists zeroed in on the question of whether a jury is a legitimate tool for deciding funding levels for schools.
When the school board’s attorneys were speaking, the justices’ questions focused on what baseline the jury is expected to measure against when it decides if a county has given a school system enough money.
The school board hopes the issue is resolved soon, said Robert Belcher, the board’s chairman. He also said that while the school board and the county board are interested in a narrow question of funding, other similar bodies across the state are interested in what the case could mean for them when the law is reversed or affirmed.
County officials were upbeat after the hearing.
McRoy was on hand to watch the proceedings with Vice Chairman Jerry Langley and several members of the county’s staff.
A decision likely won’t be issued by the court for several months.