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Judge rules Beaufort County Schools may withdraw from NERSBA

Beaufort County Schools may proceed with its withdrawal from participation in a regional school, following a judge’s ruling in Hyde County Superior Court on Monday. Superior Court Judge Cy Grant ruled the Beaufort County Board of Education was justified in its attempt to withdraw from participation in the Northeast Regional School of Biotechnology and Agriscience.

“The BOE is gratified that the Court recognized that the primary responsibility for education decisions in Beaufort County lies with the Board of Education,” read a release from the school system.

A LONG LEGAL FIGHT

The saga of the withdrawal dates back to January 2018, when then BCS Superintendent Don Phipps presented figures to the Board of Education that indicated Beaufort County was sending more students to the regional school than any other county. Phipps shared concerns that more than $500,000 in state and local funding was following those students.

During the Feb. 20, 2018, meeting of the Board of Education, Phipps offered three solutions: cap the number of students attending NERSBA, continue as before or withdraw from participation. The board voted unanimously, with those in attendance, to withdraw from participation in NERSBA, beginning with the class of 2018-19. Then-BOE Chairman Mac Hodges recused himself from the vote because he was serving at the time on the NERSBA Board of Directors.

Last May, NERSBA filed a lawsuit against the BOE, arguing the state law governing the creation of regional schools does not allow for the unilateral withdrawal of participating school systems. Attorneys for NERSBA sought an injunction requiring BCS to cease withdrawal, and Superior Court Judge Walter Godwin granted the injunction in June of last year. As a result, Beaufort County students were allowed to enroll at NERSBA during the 2018-19 school year.

On Monday, attorneys representing BCS challenged that injunction in court. At the heart of their argument was that NERSBA had not delivered on the conditions promised during its creation. Namely, they argued that NERSBA had not partnered with N.C. State University and New Schools, was not located at the Vernon G. James Research Center and Tidewater Research Station and the school did not present opportunities that are not available through the local school system.

Furthermore, a brief seeking summary judgment for BCS lays out the argument that NERSBA was not properly formed in the first place because resolutions adopted by local boards of education to participate in NERSBA were not adopted in accordance with state law.

“N.C. General Statute 115C-238.62 was not followed and NERSBA cannot meet the definition of a regional school under North Carolina law,” the brief reads. “Beaufort is entitled to a declaratory judgment that it may withdraw from an entity that has never been a properly-constituted regional school.”

MOVING FORWARD

Under the current ruling, BCS Superintendent Matthew Cheeseman says students now attending NERSBA will still have the option to finish their education at the regional school.

“I think we’re still going to honor the students who have essentially been grandfathered into NERSBA. We’re going to honor their education and be committed to them in terms of allowing them to finish their high school careers with NERSBA,” Cheeseman said. “Any students who have already been accepted and who have already attended, I’m confident the board is going to let them continue.”

For students who have applied to NERSBA for the 2019-20 school year, Cheeseman said the BOE would have to make a decision on whether they would be allowed to attend. This decision could be based on a number of factors, and may vary for each student based on their circumstances.

While Monday’s decision was a victory for BCS, attorneys for NERSBA are leaving the door open for further legal action.

“NERSBA will explore all of its options, including appeal,” wrote NERSBA Attorney Ken Gray on Tuesday.