Bill would limit school ability to sue county

Jun. 12, 2014 @ 05:32 PM

A piece of legislation that would place a two-year moratorium on school boards in Union, Gaston and Nash counties suing their boards of county commissioners over funding is working its way through the General Assembly and could be voted on by Monday. 

The legislation was introduced by Sen. Tommy Tucker, R-35, at the request of the Board of County Commissioners. 

He said that when they received the first budget request from the school board they knew they could not fund it and thought they were heading toward another lawsuit. 

Tucker described the moratorium as a “cooling-off period” to encourage the boards to work together. 

According to the proposed legislation, the commissioners will appropriate at least $87.1 million dollars for the local current expense fund and at least $19.5 million for capital outlay for the 2014-2015 fiscal year. 

The legislation stipulated that for the 2015-2016 fiscal year, the commissioners appropriate at least an equal amount to the 2014-2015 budget, plus an inflationary increase “based on the most recent annual consumer price index for all urban workers” and any increase in the average daily membership in the district in the first 20 days of the school year from the prior school year.

For capital outlay, the proposed legislation calls for at least $19.8 million in the 2015-2016 fiscal year. 

The bill also calls for the creation of a joint working group to “develop a multiyear plan to address existing and ongoing capital needs of the Union County Schools.”

The group must be established on or before Aug.1 according to the bill it will consist of 14 people, with half appointed by each board. The group is to complete its work and report to the school board and county commissioners on or before June 30, 2015. 

Tucker said he hopes the members of the joint group can work together to come up with a funding formula to provide a better idea of the money available in the future. 

School board Chairman Richard Yercheck

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disapproves of the proposed legislation. 

“I think it’s bad law; to begin with, I think it easily classifies as over-reach by the legislature and Senator Tucker,” he said. “As conservatives, we talk about wanting to push to the local level decisions.” He added that the state gets frustrated when the Federal government interferes and they are “not happy” that the state is getting involved in local busienss. 

Tucker said he did not think of the legislation as an over-reach. He said the local governments are an “extension” of the state government and the bill itself was a local request from the commissioners. 

Yercheck said the two boards are discussing a negotiation they are comfortable with. 

“The general consensus...I am comfortable with those numbers,” he said. “We’ve got details tthat we’ve got to work out, but as far as the funding itself, those numbers I’m happy with.” 

“We can work with those numbers and...I’ve not heard from any other board member that they feel like those numbers aren’t workable.” 

The appropriation numbers Yercheck was referring to are the amounts that are stipulated in the legislation.

Tucker said if it will repair the relationship between the boards “it will have been a worthwhile effort.”

Yercheck said they are also working on prioritizing their capital needs, as the county commissioners have requested. He said they will hopefully hand the commissioners that list after a Friday morning meeting so the commissioners can discuss it at their Monday meeting.

Yercheck said he was “incredulous” that the legislation was needed.

“We are in such a different place this year than we were last year at this time,” he said. “We’re not in any imminent danger of going to mediation as best as I can tell...looking at that legislation, I don’t know why we’re proceeding with that at this point in time.”  

Tucker said the proposed legislation is outside of the lawsuit that is currently being appealed. Last summer the school board sued the county commissioners over the proposed appropriation. After a roughly nine-week trial, the jury returned with a verdict of about $91 million. The commissioners have appealed the verdict. 

“It has nothing to do with (the lawsuit),” he said. 

The proposed legislation also calls to repeal the state statute that sets up the mediation or lawsuit process over funding. Tucker said he did not add that to the bill and does not think it will remain due to possible constitutionality issues. When the bill was sent back to the House Thursday morning, the House was told to clarify the language.

Tucker said he intended the bill to serve as a cooling-off period and to allow the board to work together to come up with solutions so that they “won’t end up spending $2 million for the county to sue itself.”

He said a key part of his intention was for the boards to meet without their attorneys in the room to try to work together. 

According to the proposed legislation, if any provision of the act or its application is held invalid, it will not affect the other provisions or applications of the act and they are severable. It also adds that it becomes effective when the bill becomes a law and expires upon the adoption of a budget ordinance by the county commissioners for the 2016-2017 fiscal year.