Proposed legislation would end school funding lawsuits

By Cal Bryant

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

RALEIGH – The North Carolina General Assembly is poised to finally send a piece of legislation to the Governor for his signature that would prevent a board of education filing a lawsuit against their county commissioners in cases where they can’t come to an agreement on local funding for public education.

Previous attempts to adopt such legislation have failed over the years.

This past Friday (June 15), the North Carolina Senate voted to support bill approved by the NC House of Representatives that would halt any future lawsuits stemming from local funding disagreements lodged by county school boards.

The budgetary process in all North Carolina counties includes the local school boards making revenue requests from their county commissioners. In cases where a school board is at odds with their commissioners over local funding once a new fiscal year budget is adopted, they can ask for formal mediation. If that effort fails, the funding issue can be taken to Superior Court. There, either board has the right to have the issues of fact tried by a jury.

The legislation agreed upon by the House and Senate last week is now in the hands of Gov. Roy Cooper. Pending his signature, the bill eliminates the litigation option and sets a formula by which county commissioners must fund the district when the other negotiations fail.

The legislation still allows litigation on construction spending differences, but the bill requires a study to address that.

Twice in the past seven years, the Northampton County Board of Education entered into the mitigation process with the Northampton Commissioners. On neither occasion did the process wind up in court.

The most recent case came in July of 2015. At that time, Northampton Public Schools were given $3.64 million in local funds (the same as the previous year). However, they had requested an additional $2.5 million in Northampton taxpayer money.

The majority of the requested additional revenue was for capital outlay projects, including $1.6 million needed to reconfigure schools/classrooms to serve students of a certain age due to the closing/consolidation of school campuses over the years (from 14 down to six).

Also, due to state funding cuts, the school system’s budget at that time had to cover the salaries of its Food Nutrition Director and Transportation Director, as well as to provide matching funds in excess of $150,000 to cover the county’s share of an After School Quality Grant, and keeping the Driver’s Education program in the county at no expense to the students.

Winston-Salem attorney Thorns Craven was hired, at the county’s expense, to serve as the mediator between the two boards.

Less than two weeks later, the Northampton Commissioners agreed to provide the county’s public school system with an additional $550,000 in the 2015-16 budget. Of that amount, $275,511.12 was for the school system’s current expense fund, bringing that total appropriation to $3,575,511.12. In the capital outlay budget, the Commissioners agreed to add $274,488.88 thus resulting in a new budget totaling $619,488.88.

That revised funding was accepted by the Northampton Board of Education. It was further agreed by both parties that the additional appropriations would only apply only to the FY 2015-16 budget.

In July of 2011, Northampton Schools disagreed with the local funding provided by the county commissioners. They worked out a compromise after the issue was heard by Judge James D. Llewellyn, who served as mediator. That agreement called for the immediate transfer of $200,000 from the school system’s approved fiscal year 2011-12 capital outlay budget to its current expense fund. That transfer increased the school system’s current expense fund to $3,361,538.

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