Bill would stop school systems from suing commissioners

Published 9:17 pm Tuesday, April 23, 2013

A state Senate bill would block school districts from suing county commissioners.
Senate Bill 674, an act to “Prohibit Costly Litigation Between County Government and Local School Administrative Units,” was introduced this month and sponsored by Sens. Bill Cook, Wesley Meredith, Harry Brown, Ralph Hise and Warren Daniel.
The bill gives a board of commissioners the final say on dispensing the funds it deems necessary.
It states, “The board of commissioners has sole authority to determine the adequacy of county funds provided for the operating and capital expenses of a local school administrative unit. Nothing in this Chapter shall be construed to place a duty on the board of commissioners to provide more funds for the operating or capital expenses of a local school administrative unit than it deems necessary and appropriate to fund the public schools.”
In July 2006, the Beaufort County Board of Education 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.
Commissioner Stan Deatherage said the bill might prevent a similar situation.
“While school boards should continue to have the right to sue for basic capital needs, as prescribed by the North Carolina Constitution, their ability to sue, at will, which serves to mask the debilitating effects of continued bad management, by dysfunctional school boards and education bureaucrats, needs to be curtailed; by general statue or an effective judicial system,” Deatherage said. “A well-constructed, ratified general statute to that effect would save all governing bodies time, and money henceforth from poorly considered lawsuits.”
Commissioner Al Klemm was not on the Board of Commissioners at the time, but he said the attorneys for both parties were the biggest victors.
Klemm said he is in favor of a bill that would keep the school system from suing the county.
“From a county commissioner standpoint, I think it’s wonderful,” Klemm said. “I would prefer to see the school boards and commissioners work together.”
After a cursory review of the bill, Beaufort County Schools Superintendent Don Phipps said it is missing any form of mediation by an objective third party.
“It’s a tricky situation, and I don’t want to be harsh, but that’s the rattling saber,” Phipps said. “I feel like this group of people can sit down and work it out, but what happens if that option’s off the table?”