Commissioners’ lawyer: Drop the lawsuit|Yarborough contends continued legal action hurts county taxpayers

Published 9:05 pm Saturday, October 3, 2009

Staff Writer

The lawyer for the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners said Thursday that it’s time for the county Board of Education to give up on its lawsuit against the county because continued legal action is a waste of taxpayers’ money at a time when neither board has money to spare.
G. Neil Yarborough, lawyer for the county commissioners, made the comments in a statement to reporters after meeting in a closed-door session with the county board.
Yarborough also said that even though the school board’s legal expenses will be paid by the N.C. School Boards Association, the county’s legal expenses as the lawsuit continues will be paid by county taxpayers.
To date, the county’s legal expenses to defend the lawsuit have totaled $158,032, according to Jim Chrisman, assistant county manager and finance officer. The school board’s expenses in the lawsuit were not available Friday because members of the school’s financial staff were attending a training session, according to Sarah Hodges, Beaufort County Schools’ public information officer.
Yarborough also said that continued legal action against the county would damage the already tenuous relationship between the school board and the county commissioners, which some believe, has been exacerbated this week over the reluctance of some school-board members to help the county balance its budget and demands the school board made to the county regarding funds for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
“They are trying to create an atmosphere that will foment more legal action,” Yarborough said of the school board. “I think this action is going to have regrettable consequences for the relationship that was positively growing between the Board of Education and the county commissioners.”
Yarborough was scheduled to meet with the commissioners about one hour Thursday, but that meeting lasted almost two hours delaying the start of the county commissioners’ October meeting.
Lawyers for the school board on Monday filed a motion in Beaufort County Superior Court seeking a stay of a retrial of the original court case until the state’s N.C. Supreme Court rules on a petition, which was expected to have been filed Friday, asking the court to reconsider its Aug. 28 ruling in the case.
Yarborough refused to comment Thursday on what the county’s response to the motion to stay would be and he said he hoped the school board would reconsider its decision to go back to the high court.
“The county Board of Commissioners regrets the expense that the Beaufort County Board of Education and the North Carolina School Boards Association are going to put the taxpayers of Beaufort County to in defending this petition,” Yarborough said. “They believe it is time for the Board of Education and the county Board of Commissioners to stop spending money on legal expenses.”
He said the county’s legal bills will be substantial if the state Supreme Court agrees to reconsider its expenses.
County Manager Paul Spruill reiterated Yarborough’s remarks.
“The county commissioners do not approve of the school board’s decision and are hopeful that the school board would reconsider their decision.”
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.
In August, the high court reversed a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals regarding the lawsuit brought by the school board over county funding for county schools during the 2006-2007 school year and remanded the case to Beaufort County Superior Court. The 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 needed to operate a public school system in Beaufort County.
In a previous interview, Rod Malone, lawyer for the school board, said the petition, when filed, will ask for a clarification of the court’s ruling as to why Griffin’s instructions were not correct. The school board is seeking an expanded definition of the word “needed” rather than the restricted definition as defined in the court’s ruling.
Yarborough said the county is satisfied with the high court’s definition of “needed” and the high court’s ruling in the case.
“It is my understanding that the county commissioners are willing to stop this thing right now and let it go if the board of education drops this petition,” he said.