N.C. bill would block school boards from suing county commissioners for more money

khui@newsobserver.comApril 21, 2013 

North Carolina’s 115 public school systems would lose the right to take their local board of county commissioners to court for more funding under a bill filed in the state Senate.

Senate Bill 674 would strike from state law the sections that allow school boards to sue county commissioners for more funding for operations and buying property. Supporters say commissioners should have the last word and that the legislation would prevent costly taxpayer-funded litigation. However, opponents say it will weaken the ability of school systems to get the money they need to educate students – calling the possibility of a mediation and a lawsuit a tool that can move stalled negotiations forward.

“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,” according to the legislation. “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.”

The bill has been referred to the Senate Education Committee.

Its primary sponsors are Sen. Harry Brown, an Onslow County Republican and Senate Majority Leader; Sen. Warren Daniel, a Burke County Republican; and Sen. Ralph Hise, a Mitchell County Republican. Efforts to reach them for comment were unsuccessful.

Who holds purse strings?

“School boards need to have the means to provide a sound basic education,” said Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, which opposes the bill. “If they can’t sue the county commissioners, does the state have to provide more funding? It raises a lot of questions.”

But Todd McGee, a spokesman for the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, which supports the bill, said the new legislation will force school boards to do a better job of persuading commissioners that they need the amount they’ve requested. He said commissioners should make the final decision because they’re weighing requests from all county departments and from other groups, not just from the school system.

North Carolina school districts don’t have taxing authority so they request money from their county board of commissioners for facility needs. School boards also ask commissioners to supplement amounts they get from the state and federal government for day-to-day needs in the operating budget.

Under state law, school boards can officially declare to commissioners that they don’t feel they’re getting enough funding. This leads to meeting with a mediator to try to resolve the argument.

If mediation fails, the school board can then file a lawsuit in Superior Court to request more money.

Taking it to court

School districts rarely use this power to sue county governments. Since 1997, a maximum of five budget mediations have occurred annually, according to John B. Stephens, an associate professor at the UNC School of Government.

In 2012, the Graham County school system, located in western North Carolina on the Tennessee line, was the only district to seek mediation, according to Stephens.

McGee said the small number of requests shows that county governments are seriously considering the requests from school boards.

But Winner said it’s the threat to go to mediation, even if it’s rarely used, that can cause commissioners to come to the budget table.

This bill comes at the same time as the Senate is considering another piece of legislation that would allow county commissioners to take construction, maintenance, renovations and ownership of schools away from school boards.

Only a few counties are expected to take advantage of the school ownership bill, so the majority would be covered by Senate Bill 674 when it comes to the land-purchase issue.

Boards dispute need for bill

The split at the state level is mirrored locally.

The last time that the Wake County school board sought mediation was in 1997, when it led to a five-year agreement in which school requests for extra funding had to be approved unless three of the seven commissioners objected. Since then, the school board for the state’s largest school district has sometimes used the threat of mediation during tense budget negotiations with the county.

“Wake County Commissioners are in favor of legislation that prevents wasteful and frivolous lawsuits,” said Joe Bryan, chairman of the Wake County Board of Commissioners.

But Wake County school board chairman Keith Sutton said the bill goes against the democratic process.

“Boards are not going to be in agreement at all times,” he said. “It can help to have third-party mediation through the process.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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