State blocks Union, Gaston school boards from suing over money

State lawmakers Thursday imposed a two-year moratorium on the Union, Gaston and Nash county school boards’ ability to sue county commissioners over funding disputes.

The Senate approved the bill in a 30-15 vote, with the House approving it 70-42.

Repuclican Sen. Tommy Tucker from Union County introduced the plan as a local bill for his county. GOP Sen. Buck Newton, who represents Nash County northeast of Raleigh, offered the amendment adding the other two districts.

The legislation comes as Union County commissioners and the school board try to avoid returning to the courtroom to settle their budget dispute.

Gaston County commissioners asked to be added during a heated conflict with their school board over spending, said Vice Chairman Joe Carpenter. The school board hasn’t sued, “but they may,” he said.

Cumberland County Democrat Rep. Rick Glazier said he believes the bill is a good faith effort to resolve Union County’s conflict, but he said it sends “a terrible message” to school boards and county commissioners across North Carolina that the state will step in to resolve their disputes.

And Glazier said the bill strips all leverage from school boards in Gaston and Nash. While the bill spells out a minimum allotment for Union schools, it says nothing about the amount for those districts: “What if county commissioners now say, ‘We’re going to give you zero’ or ‘We’re going to give you 10 percent less’?”

Last year, the Union County school board successfully sued the county over budget funding levels and won a $91 million verdict, which remains under appeal. Combined legal bills for the two boards are more than $1.7 million so far.

Tucker said the bill was introduced before the school board and commissioners made substantial progress in trying to settle their budget issues this year. If the two sides can’t work out their differences next year, he said, the bill calls for expenses to remain at the level that is agreed upon this year, along with certain adjustments.

Gaston County Republican Rep. John Torbett said he supports the bill because “we need to pay for the needs of teachers and kids, not attorneys.”

Union commissioners have said they support the bill.

But Union school board Chairman Richard Yercheck called the bill an “overreach by folks in Raleigh. These are local issues that need to be addressed at the local level.”

He said the school board followed the rules when it sued the county. “Now we have interlopers coming in to fix something that is not broken,” Yercheck said of Tucker and other state legislators.