Officials differ on appeals issue|Threat of a new trial is difference, says county official

Published 9:57 pm Thursday, October 8, 2009

Staff Writer

There is a difference in Beaufort County’s decision to appeal a Beaufort County Superior Court decision in its court battle against the Beaufort County Schools and the Beaufort County Board of Education’s decision to challenge a N.C. Supreme Court ruling in the case, one county official said Wednesday.
On Tuesday, school board Chairman Robert Belcher said the school board’s decision to file a petition with the state’s high court was based on its belief that a substantive legal issue is at stake and no different from the rationale that the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners gave in pursuing an appeal of the Superior Court verdict almost three years ago.
In filing the that appeal, the county said the issue before the court “had statewide significance,” Belcher said. “We’re saying the same thing.”
County Manager Paul Spruill said Wednesday that the difference is the specter of a new trial and the substantial legal expense of starting over in court.
“It’s a far different risk and a far different circumstance,” he said. “The county made its decision to appeal with zero threat of a retrial.”
Belcher disagreed.
“What’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.
The school board is scheduled to meet at 3 pm. Friday in a closed-door session with its lawyers in the case.
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. Superior Court Judge William C. Griffin Jr. ordered the county to pay the school board $412,000 of that jury award while the case made its way through the appeals process.
In August, the high court reversed a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals regarding the lawsuit and returned the case to Beaufort County Superior Court for a retrial. The high court determined that instructions to the jury 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. Griffin has since retired.
On Friday, lawyers for the school board filed a petition asking the high court to reconsider its 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, according to Rod Malone, lawyer for the school board.
Since then, the county’s lawyer and some county commissioners have called on the school board to drop its petition.
“The school board voted to (file the petition,” Belcher said. “They would have to go back and revisit it.”
To date, legal expenses in the case have come to $403,264.55 The county’s legal expenses have totaled $158,032, according to Jim Chrisman, assistant county manager and finance officer. The school board’s expenses have been $245,232.55, according to Laurie Modlin, the school system’s finance officer.