House votes to let school boards keep power to sue

Posted April 28, 2015

— House lawmakers Tuesday night voted down an attempt to strip school boards in North Carolina of the power to sue county boards of commissioners over budget disputes.

House Bill 726, sponsored by Rep. Susan Conrad, R-Forsyth, a former county commissioner, would have blocked lawsuits by school boards, forcing the two boards into mediation instead. If the two sides could not agree, the county commissioners' decision would have been final and could not have been appealed.

"There have been numerous lawsuits across the state, but the one that was probably the most egregious was the one in Union County," Conrad said, relating how a $9 million suit brought by the school board against the county commissioners ended up with a $91 million award by a jury.

The jury award was overturned, she said, but the legal bill was $2 million – "money that could have been spent on children."

Conrad said school and county boards need to work together to figure out how to balance needs for school funding with other county responsibilities.

Rep. Larry Bell, D-Sampson, also a former county commissioner, agreed that that's the best solution, "But that's not what you see in all 115 systems."

Bell said lawsuits are the only tool school boards have "to shock [county commissioners] into the reality of providing some funds," because they lack the ability to tax.

The proposal split the vote within both parties.

"Education is a priority, but a majority of our counties are already stretched thin. They have to support DSS and other departments," said co-sponsor Rep. Howard Hunter, D- Hertford, also a former county commissioner.

Co-sponsor Rep. Jonathan Jordan, R-Ashe, argued that the county commissioners are, under state law, the final arbiters of how county funds are spent.

"School boards need to work on curriculum and those things," Jordan said. "The county commission is the purse strings. The county commission should be the final say on this."

"Only two people make out" when government bodies sue each other, said Rep. Carl Ford, R-Rowan, "and it's two attorneys."

But the bill was ultimately defeated because of the number of members in each party who've served on either school boards, county boards of commissioners or both. They agreed that relationships between the two can be contentious but that the unilateral disarmament of the school boards would not solve the problem.

Rep. James Langdon, R-Johnston, a former county commissioners chairman, said he was actually sued by his school board during his tenure, but he argued it was important for school boards to have the leverage legal recourse provides.

"We do not need to vote for this bill," Langdon cautioned. "I think we’re stepping off into an area that is dangerous in the sense of the end product."

Rep. Chris Whitmire, R-Transylvania, also argued against the bill, saying the threat of a lawsuit is "the one check and balance that forces people to reason."

"Whatever the solution is, there's something that could be better. It's not this bill," Whitmire said.

"When we take away the right to sue, we might as well just take away everything and put the school board under the county commission," argued Rep. Dean Arp, R-Union. "This takes away the balance we've built into the system."

The final vote was 52-66 against it. That means the proposal is dead for the rest of the two-year legislative session.


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