High court remands Beaufort County school-funding case|Justices cite error in jury instructions as reason for ruling

Published 2:34 pm Saturday, August 29, 2009

Contributing Edito

The N.C. Supreme Court on Friday reversed the N.C. Court of Appeals’ decision regarding the lawsuit brought by the Beaufort County Board of Education against the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners over county funding for county schools during the 2006-2007 school year and remanded the case for a new trial.
Whether or not the school board takes the commissioners to court again over funding for that school year is up to the school board, said Neil Yarborough, who represents the commissioners in that matter, during a conference call Friday afternoon.
The court’s decision was a 4-2-1 split among the high court’s seven justices.
“From a practical standpoint, the case ought to be over with,” Yarborough said, adding he saw no need to return to the courtroom to argue over money for a school year that’s already come and gone by several years. “What’s the point? … It seems like to me we all should shake hands and go on home.”
Commissioners Chairman Jay McRoy, who participated in the conference call at the county’s administrative offices, said he sees no need to return to court, adding “it would be the Board of Education’s decision.”
Robert Belcher, chairman of the school board, was unaware of the high court’s decision until contacted by the Washington Daily News on Friday afternoon.
“I’m sure we will have to get an attorney down here and tell the board what it means,” Belcher said, declining to comment further until he had a chance to study the decision and talk with the school board’s counsel.
The case was remanded because the high court determined instructions to the jury that deliberated the case received flawed instructions from Superior Court Judge William C. Griffin Jr., who presided at the trial in Beaufort County Superior Court.
“The trial court instructed the jury that the word ‘needed’ … means ‘that which is reasonable and useful and proper or conducive to the end sought.’ Rather than conveying a restrictive definition of ‘needed,’ which is necessary to preserve the discretionary authority of county commissions under Article IX Section 2(2), the instruction conveyed an impermissible, expansive definition of this statutory term. Because the instruction was in error, we must remand for a new trial,” reads the decision.
At that trial, the court said, the trial court should instruct the jury that state law requires county commissioners to provide “that appropriation legally necessary to support a system of free public schools, as defined by state law and the state Board of Education. The trial court should also instruct the jury, in arriving at its verdict, to consider the educational goals and policies of the state, the budgetary request of the school board, the financial resources of the county and the fiscal policies of the board of commissioners.
“Anything beyond this measure of damages impermissibly infringes upon the discretionary authority of the County Commission under Article IX, Section 2(2) of the State Constitution and may not be awarded by a jury,” reads the decision.
“The bottom line of this entire case is … give them the minimum requirement of what they need,” Yarborough said about the county’s obligation to provide funds for the school system.”
In July 2006, the school board took the county to court, contending the school system’s funding from the county was not adequate to properly run county schools for the 2006-2007 school year. A jury subsequently awarded the school board an additional $765,783, upping the school system’s local appropriation for that school year from $9.4 million to $10.2 million. The county appealed the case.
The appeal was entered Aug. 9, 2006, by Griffin in Beaufort County Superior Court. Griffin presided over the trial during the summer of 2006. That appeal was heard by the Court of Appeals on Aug. 23, 2007.
In February 2008, the Court of Appeals issued a ruling upholding the jury’s decision.
Before the case went to trial in July 2006, commissioners contended they were forced into court before they had been given adequate time to prepare for the trial.
Several days after the jury reached its verdict, Commissioner Robert Cayton said the “law must be clarified” so commissioners know what they can do or cannot do in similar situations.
Although the N.C. Court of Appeals in February 2008 dismissed the commissioners’ appeal of the case, the high court later determined the commissioners’ petition for review had merit.
In April 2008, the state’s high court granted Beaufort County’s request for a discretionary review of issues related to the lawsuit involving the Beaufort County Board of Education and the Board of Commissioners.
The high court heard arguments in the case in September 2008.
Lawyers, some representing the school board and others representing the county, argued about whether the school system can force the county to fund teacher incentives and other operating expenses. The county’s lawyers contended 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.
As for the county’s assertion that the Legislature has assigned to local governments responsibility only for funding capital expenses and not current expenses, the high court rejected the argument that the Legislature has not assigned responsibility for current expenses to local governments.
The high court also rejected the county’s assertion that its due-process rights were violated by the trial court’s denial of its motion to continue the case so it would have time to adequately prepare for trial. The lawsuit was filed July 14, 2006. The trial begin July 24, 2006. The high court said the Legislature intended that such lawsuits be carried out promptly.
Although the high court rejected the county’s argument, it reversed the Court of Appeal’s decision and remanded the case to that court for further remand to the trial court for a new trial because of the trial court’s error in its instructions to the jury that heard the lawsuit.
For additional information about the high court’s decision and the discussion held during the conference call, see future editions of the Washington Daily News.