Politics & Government

NC Senate votes to ban school boards from suing counties

Wake County Commissioners held a joint meeting with the school board in January. Under legislation that passed the Senate Wednesday, the two boards couldn’t sue each other in a budget dispute.
Wake County Commissioners held a joint meeting with the school board in January. Under legislation that passed the Senate Wednesday, the two boards couldn’t sue each other in a budget dispute. cseward@newsobserver.com

The state Senate approved legislation Wednesday that would ban school boards from suing their boards of county commissioners.

If the House approves the Senate’s additions to House Bill 561, the lawsuit ban would be in place until 2020. Sen. Dan Soucek, a Boone Republican, added the provision to the otherwise noncontroversial bill on Tuesday. The final vote was 35-12, with four Democrats joining Republicans to support the bill.

Supporters of the provision say school boards often waste taxpayer money by suing their counties over budget requests.

“I call this, ‘county, do not sue thyself,’” said Sen. Tommy Tucker, a Republican from Union County – where such lawsuits have occurred. “We have spent close to $2 million of county dollars – a third of an elementary school – because the two boards couldn’t come to an agreement. You don’t want your county suing itself.”

Sen. Joyce Waddell, a Mecklenburg County Democrat, sought to remove the provision, saying the legislature shouldn’t strip legal power from school boards.

“I was blindsided by this,” she said, noting that she regrets having voted for the bill on Tuesday. “I’ve heard from three school systems, and they’re concerned. This General Assembly does not need to make decisions for each and every one of them.”

The N.C. School Boards Association urged its members to lobby against the bill.

“This section has the potential to significantly alter the balance between school boards and county commissions,” the association’s “legislative alert” said. “The threat of school boards utilizing the legal action option gives county commissioners incentive to negotiate and take school board concerns seriously both during the normal budget development process and mediation.

“There is also the question of how local boards of education will fulfill the constitutional obligation to provide an opportunity for a sound, basic education if this option is unavailable.”

The bill now heads to the House, which already voted down similar legislation in April by a 52-66 vote – a rare occasion in which legislation was placed on the floor without majority support.

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