Lee commissioners, BOE take opposing stances on state bill

Some school districts would be prevented from suing counties
Jun. 10, 2014 @ 04:59 AM

The legislature is back in session, and once again Lee County school and government officials are writing dueling letters of support or criticism to leaders in Raleigh.

Last year, it was several local bills that split the two boards. This year, the proposed legislation causing the division is a statewide bill that would affect just five counties, including Lee.

The bill would prohibit the school boards in those five counties from suing the county governments over improper education funding levels, although state law does allow such lawsuits in general. It's unclear why just five of the state's 100 counties were singled out in the bill; in Lee County, it's believed the school board never has sued the county.

Some school officials, though, say they don't want to lose the ability to file a suit even if they never have. They questioned why the Republican majority in the General Assembly would single out just a a handful of counties for inclusion.

"To me, it's a way to try to take away a tool of last resort ... and it reeks of politics and partisanship," school board member John Bonardi said. Bonardi, who recently switched from the Republican party to be unaffiliated, said this is a perfect example of why he wanted to leave.

"It makes me even more glad that I left that party a few months back — such legislation of a ridiculous nature such as this," he said during a board meeting last week.

Another school board member and former Republican, Tamara Brogan, now a Democrat, agreed.

"It definitely reeks of politics, and it's ridiculous," she said at the meeting, before the board voted 6-0 to authorize Superintendent Andy Bryan to write a letter to state leaders informing them of the local school district's unfavorable opinion of the legislation.

The commissioners, though, also stood unanimously in favor of the bill and passed a resolution in favor of it last week as well.

The bill was inspired by a recent Union County case, in which a jury awarded the school district $91 million from the county. The two taxpayer-funded boards there also have reportedly spent nearly $1.5 million on the case in legal costs.

The fact that the large Union County payout followed a strict formula to fund certain expenditures also was a problem for some local leaders. The $91 million awarded to Union County was mainly for capital costs, and in Lee County, the school board has asked for tens of millions in capital spending that the county has balked at, citing large amounts of debt from other recent school projects.

Lee County Manager John Crumpton said he'd be worried about the county losing its power to set fiscal policy and become subject to formula-based funding.

But Dr. Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, had policy questions of his own.

"It certainly sounds unconstitutional, to me, to pick out five counties and tell us we can't do what the other 95 counties in the state can do," Smith said.

Charlie Parks, the chairman of the commissioners, said he doesn't like the idea of budget-based lawsuits in general. Juries, he said, can't be expected to know as much about local government administration and budgeting as the county's professional staff.

Fellow commissioner Jim Womack also said the formula, if used here, could require the county to give Lee County Schools hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the formula doesn't account for some education funding the county provides, he said, including school resource officers and transportation to after-school activities like the Boys and Girls Club.

Mediation could take that into account, he said, but a court-mandated formula wouldn't. The resolution the commissioners passed also states mediation is cheaper and quicker than a lawsuit.

School officials said they're not opposed to mediation and in fact frequently have discussions with the county. They just want to keep their options open.

"That gives us a recourse that we can have to negotiate with the commissioners," Brogan said. "If we take that away, we don't have any way to stand up for the children."

The bill is in the House for now; it must still pass the Senate and be approved by Gov. Pat McCrory before becoming law.