Board, lawyers to discuss ruling later this month|High court’s decision has schools awaiting word on their options

Published 3:20 pm Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beaufort County Board of Education will meet with lawyers later this month to discuss its next step in a three-year-old lawsuit against the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners over school funding following a decision last week by the N.C. Supreme Court, school board Chairman Robert Belcher said Tuesday.
The school board will meet with its lawyers from Schwartz and Shaw on Sept. 23 — before a previously scheduled a budget workshop — to discuss the case, Belcher said.
“This gives the lawyers the chance to talk with us face to face,” he said.
The N.C. Supreme Court on Friday reversed a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals regarding the lawsuit brought by the school board over county funding for county schools for the 2006-2007 school year and, in effect, remanded the case to Beaufort County Superior Court.
The court’s decision was a 4-2-1 split among the high court’s seven justices.
The case was remanded because the high court determined that instructions to the jury by Superior Court Judge William C. Griffin Jr. were flawed in Griffin’s definition of the word “needed” as it relates to appropriations for operating a public school system in Beaufort County.
In writing for the majority, Justice Mark Martin wrote, “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.”
In remanding the case, Martin additionally wrote that the court “should instruct the jury that section 431(c) requires the County Commission to provide that appropriation legally necessary to support a system of free public schools. … 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 local board of education, the financial resources of the county, and the fiscal policies of the board of county 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.”
In July 2006, the school board took the county to court, arguing that 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 $756,783 for the year. The county appealed the case.
Belcher said he wasn’t sure what the school board’s next step would be, following preliminary discussions between interim school Superintendent William Rivenbark and lawyers for the school board.
“I’ll just get an explanation on the 23rd along with the rest of the board,” he said.