The North Carolina House of Representatives recently rejected legislation that would have removed a board of education’s authority to sue a county in the event that the school board believes the county is not appropriately funding the school district’s operations.
Last week the House voted not to concur with a Senate amendment to House Bill 561. The bill, which primarily identifies a school board’s rights when conducting an investigation, had a Senate-added amendment calling for a five-year moratorium on a school board’s ability to sue a county when seeking increased funding.
Under North Carolina law a school board may sue a county board of commissioners if that board does not feel that the county is providing enough funding for the school system’s operations. Also included in North Carolina law are provisions for a mediation process between boards of education and boards of commissioners that are at odds.
According to the University of North Carolina School of Government since the mediation process was implemented in 2007 it has been used on 35 occasions. A recent and costly instance of legal action following the mediation process occurred in Union County.
Though Union County Schools dropped its suit against the board of county commissioners, officials from both sides of the matter said the suits cost taxpayers millions of dollars.
For this reason, the North Carolina Association of County Commissioners made eliminating a school board’s ability to sue its county board of commissioners over a funding dispute one of its top five goals for this legislative session. Surry County Commissioner Larry Phillips is running for the association’s second vice president slot later this month.
Phillips said that the fact that legal action is a possibility in the case of a difference of opinion regarding funding between a school board and a board of commissioners creates an adversarial environment. Phillips also said that neither a school board nor a board of commissioners wins when a matter hits the court docket.
“The only people that win in a lawsuit are the lawyers,” commented Phillips. “The message to counties and school districts is ‘you guys work together.’”
According to Phillips there isn’t an issue in Surry County. “We have a great relationship with our school systems here,” said Phillips. “We understand the needs of our schools, and they understand where we are as a county.”
However, Phillips said that’s not necessarily the case in other counties. “Some boards of commissioners are more stubborn than others, and some school boards can be unrealistic in their funding expectations,” said Phillips.
Phillips added that though the House did not concur with the Senate amendment to strip school boards’ authority to sue county commissioners this time, Phillips believes the measure will pass at some point. “I think if we have another case like Union County this legislation will end up passing,” said Phillips.
The North Carolina Association of School Boards sits on the opposite side of the lawsuit matter and adamantly opposes legislation that would remove a school board’s right to sue a board of county commissioners over a funding dispute.
Surry County Schools Superintendent Dr. Travis Reeves, like Phillips, said he’s not concerned about the situation in Surry County. “We are fortunate that our board of education and county commissioners have a positive working relationship,” wrote Reeves in response to questions.
However, Reeves also said that’s not the case in some other counties. Unlike Phillips, Reeves said he doesn’t support legislation that would eliminate a school board’s ability to sue county commissioners. Reeves said that a move to do that would simply further infringe on local control.
“Boards of Education need the authority to ensure they can carry out their constitutional obligation if funding is not sufficient. The ability to mount a legal challenge to insufficient local funding is part of the mechanism by which school boards carry out the State’s constitutional obligation,” wrote Reeves.
Reeves said that boards of education have seen their local control stripped quite often in North Carolina, citing the simple example of a state controlled school calendar. “Our school board is legislated to follow a mandatory calendar that does not meet the needs of our local students, programs and the many college courses that are offered at SCC,” stated Reeves.
In the end, Reeves called the Senate’s amendment to H561 “reactionary” in nature and a response to the drawn-out litigation in Union County. “At the end of the day, I am concerned this is more about control than doing what is right for students and communities,” wrote Reeves.
After the House voted not to concur with the Senate amendment to H561, the bill was set for a conference committee. There is no information available as to when conferees will meet to iron-out the differences between the House and Senate versions of the legislation.
Andy Winemiller is a staff writer at the Mount Airy News. Andy can be reached at (336) 415-4698 or email@example.com.