A state bill cosponsored by Burke County Sen. Warren Daniel, R-46th District, would end a school boards ability to sue its county board of commissioners over school funding.
Daniel said Senate Bill 674 titled Prohibit Costly Local Government Litigation that he filed April 2 is intended to keep taxpayers dimes from going to legal fees that can reach into the hundreds of thousands when the two boards dont agree on how much, or how little, local money commissioners give schools.
But local school officials say the bill, which passed its first reading April 3 and is with the Community on Education, would take away a key recourse for them in fighting commissioners when school boards feel they are being underfunded.
Such was the case in 2009 when the Burke County Board of Education sued the Burke County Board of Commissioners, saying the schools were underfunded to the point that it hampered the school boards ability to provide a free education and meet capital needs.
A judge ruled in favor of the school board in that it got $20,000 more out of commissioners for the budget year, but Keith Lawson, finance officer for Burke schools, said the suit cost the school system $177,000.
While Lawson said he can see where the bill would prevent frivolous lawsuits and save tax dollars, it would leave school systems powerless.
It may have been filed with the best of intentions, Lawson said of the bill, but there needs to be checks and balances for everything.
The proposed bill rewrites the general statute to read, The board of commissioners has sole authority to determine the adequacy of county funds provided for the operating and capital expenses of a local school administrative unit. Nothing in this Chapter shall be construed to place a duty on the board of commissioners to provide more funds for the operating or capital expenses of a local school administrative unit than it deems necessary and appropriate to fund the public schools.
Lawson said the sole authority language is what bothers him the most.
We need to have some kind of recourse to dispute funding, some method, Lawson said. To give commissioners sole discretion and oversight, that is just wrong.
School board member Buddy Armour agrees.
Armour said the board of education, not the board of commissioners, is the expert on how much money it takes to educate students.
This undermines a school boards ability to make sure kids get a free and basic education, Armour said.
Armour and Larry Putnam, school superintendent, agree with the N.C. School Board Association, which opposes the bill.
The bill raises the question of how local boards of education will fulfill the (Constitutional) obligation to provide an opportunity for a sound, basic education, the NCSBA writes in a report on the proposed legislation.
Putnam said if students and their education are put first and everybody is at the same table, then the funding will be there.
As a member of the senate Education/High Education Committee, Daniel said he was surprised to hear senators in other districts talk about expensive legal disputes between school boards and county commissioners in the counties they represent.
This came out of a committee discussion on the cost to local governments when conflicts arise between school boards and county commissioners, Daniel said about how the bill he and fellow Republicans Ralph Hise of Mitchell County and Harry Brown of Onslow County are sponsoring got started.
This is a measure to prevent taxpayer dollars from being spent that way, Daniel said It will force the two boards to resolve their differences between themselves and spend less time and effort in the court system.
Maynard Taylor, chairman of the Burke County Board of Commissioners, said when school boards sue commissioners we all lose, especially taxpayers.
Taylor favors mediation over long, drawn-out, expensive court cases to settle differences.
We should be smart enough and concerned enough to resolve the issues and not go to court, Taylor said.
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