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TOP 10 OF 2018: BCS attempts withdrawal from NERSBA, courts say no

An attempt by the Beaufort County School system this year to withdraw from participation in the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriculture ended in a lawsuit and a judge’s order for the school system to continue participation in the program.

The saga of the attempted withdrawal dates back to January, when the Beaufort County Board of Education discussed local enrollment at the school and the impact on the school system’s budget. Then-superintendent Dr. Don Phipps, who left the school system in July, expressed concerns that more than $500,000 was leaving the school system with the 98 Beaufort County students enrolled at NERSBA.

On Feb. 20, the BOE voted unanimously with those in attendance to withdraw from participating in NERSBA. BOE Chairman Mac Hodges, who also served on the NERSBA Board of Directors, recused himself from the discussion and continued to do so in ensuing discussions of the matter throughout the year.

While the withdrawal seemed to be a done deal, this was called into question by a March 14 letter addressed to the BOE and signed by three state legislators — N.C. Senator Harry Brown, N.C. Senator Bill Cook and N.C. Representative Beverly Boswell. In the letter, the board was admonished against taking such action and advised that there is currently no mechanism in state law that would allow withdrawal.

In May, NERSBA answered the board’s attempted withdrawal with a lawsuit. Filing suit in Martin County Superior Court, the regional school’s attorneys asked that BCS be prevented from taking any further actions to cease participation.

NERSBA argued that since the North Carolina General Statute responsible for the creation of regional schools did not include any language for withdrawal, a unilateral exit from participation would not be permitted. BCS, meanwhile, adopted the position that while a process for withdrawal is not spelled out by law, it did not mean withdrawal is prohibited.

In June, N.C. Superior Court Judge Walter Godwin appeared to side with NERSBA, granting a preliminary injunction that prevented BCS from taking further actions to withdraw from participation until the court had rendered a final decision.

While the court will ultimately decide if withdrawal is permissible under the law allowing for creation of regional schools, the N.C. General Assembly will also be taking a second look at the regional school model. BCS Interim superintendent Mark Doane confirmed that the two parties will enter into mediation in January.

Under the terms of the state budget passed earlier this year, the Joint Legislative Education Oversight Committee is tasked with studying the current law to determine whether a withdrawal process should be added to the statutes. The deadline for the committee to make a recommendation on the matter is Jan. 19, 2019.