Bill needs careful thought

Published 4:18 pm Thursday, April 20, 2017

It comes as no surprise as to who’s supporting and who’s opposing a bill in the North Carolina General Assembly that would prohibit school boards from suing county commissioners over school funding.

The N.C. Association of County Commissioners says the bill is one of its top legislative priorities this year. The N.C. School Boards Association opposes the bill. When it comes to county commissioners and school boards feuding, funding for schools has always ranked high on the list of feud-provoking issues.

Want proof? Look no farther than Beaufort County Schools versus Beaufort County Board of Commissioners.

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.
Later, the N.C. Supreme 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.
Eventually, the matter was resolved. Other school boards filed similar lawsuits against other boards of commissioners in the aftermath of the controversy in Beaufort County.

“To let this go to a court level and have a judge and jury that does not understand the financial responsibilities of either group, can make outrageous awards that county commissions cannot handle,” Republican Rep. Debra Conrad of Winston-Salem, a co-sponsor of the bill, told the News & Observer of Raleigh.

Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat, said the ability to sue could actually help resolve disputes because mediation is required before the issues reach a courtroom. “It seems to me that the ability to avail yourself of the court system is what’s keeping people at the bargaining table, and it’s reducing the number of suits,” she told the newspaper.

The two representatives make good points, but Butler’s view hits on something fundamental when it comes to the issue. The ability to go to the court system often brings people to that bargaining table. If that bargaining table fails to produce a solution, school boards should have the option to go to court to obtain funding needed to provide children the education the North Carolina constitution requires.

A law taking away that option is unfair to children and school boards across the state.