An N.C. House committee voted Wednesday to ban school boards from suing their county commissioners over funding disputes.
The bill’s sponsors say the change is needed to avoid costly lawsuits when school boards are seeking a bigger budget than county leaders are willing to provide.
“I’ve found that cooperation works a lot better than intimidation,” said Rep. Larry Potts, a Lexington Republican and former county commissioner who’s sponsoring the proposal.
Potts’ co-sponsor, Republican Rep. Debra Conrad of Winston-Salem, said that funding disputes arise because county commissioners have to balance the needs of a variety of county services, while school board members are focusing solely on education.
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“To let this go to a court level and have a judge and jury that does not understand the financial responsibilities of either group,” she said, “can make outrageous awards that county commissions cannot handle.”
The N.C. Association of County Commissioners says the bill is one of its top legislative priorities this year. Lobbyist Johanna Reese pointed to a lawsuit in Union County in which the court awarded the school board $91 million, although that award was overturned on appeal. She said the case required $2 million in legal fees that “did not go to education.”
“We have had several cases where a school board comes in, says ‘this is how much we want, if we don’t get it, we’re going to sue you,’” Reese said.
But the N.C. School Boards Association is opposing the bill. Lobbyist Bruce Mildwurf said a legislative study is currently under way to recommend alternative solutions to funding disputes.
“This is a contentious issue, it’s emotional,” Mildwurf said. “There’s no urgency here because it’s in a study committee. We just ask that you wait for the recommendation that the House unanimously asked for.”
Rep. Deb Butler, a Wilmington Democrat, said the ability to sue could actually help resolve disputes because mediation is required before the issues reach a courtroom.
“It seems to me that the ability to avail yourself of the court system is what’s keeping people at the bargaining table, and it’s reducing the number of suits,” she said.
A similar bill made its way through the House and Senate in 2015 but was ultimately watered down with the provision calling for the study report. After a split voice vote in the House State and Local Government I Committee, the bill now goes to the House Judiciary IV Committee.