Jury: Give schools $91 million

Statement urges county, schools to work more closely
Oct. 10, 2013 @ 05:20 PM

The jury returned with a unanimous verdict Thursday morning, awarding the school system about $91 million in its lawsuit seeking additional funding. 

The Union County Board of Education entered mediation with the Union County Board of Commissioners over the summer due to a budget dispute. The mediation ended without a settlement, and the boards went to court. Jury selection began about nine weeks ago and the trial lasted for about eight weeks. 

The jury unanimously awarded $4,973,134 in additional current expense funds and an additional $86,184,005 in capital outlay, according to a statement from the school system. 

They released a statement after the verdict was rendered. 

“We the jury, representing the people of Union County have come to a united decision,” The statement read. “While we agree that the county commissioner and board of education have made mistakes in the past, the greater weight of the evidence has proven the board of education has needs that have not been met. Therefore, in order to maintain a system of free public schools and sound, basic education, we have awarded the board of education the funds requested.”

The statement also addressed the boards and residents. 

“Now we charge both boards to work together to meet the needs of our children. We encourage the people of Union County to make their voices heard at board of county commissioners and board of education meetings.”

Commissioner Attorney Ligon Bundy said he had no comment after the trial and was leaving to to talk to his client. 

The county commissioners originally allocated $3 million in capital outlay, when the school system requested $8.3 million. They allocated $82 million of the $86 million requested in the continuing budget. 

The jurors heard testimony and roofs, bathrooms that are not in compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act and more during the trial. The county argued that they had appropriately funded the school system and that the system opted to purchase technology instead of repairing the schools. 

Superintendent Mary Ellis was near tears after the trial. She said that as a mother, grandmother, and life-long resident of Union County, she gave the glory to God. 

As superintendent, she said that they have been vilified by the county commissioners and felt vindicated that a jury of their peers heard the evidence and returned their verdict. 

She said they will spend the money appropriately and how they said they were going to spend it. Her top priorities are structural issues, ADA compliance and safety and security upgrades, though she noted not necessarily in that order. 

Board of Education Chairman Richard Yercheck was speechless after the verdict. 

“(I’m) overwhelmed,” he said. 

While he was not surprised by the verdict, the amount awarded came as a surprise to everybody. 

“I’m not surprised that we won because 12 folks got together and judged the evidence,” Yercheck said. 

He said he was “elated” by the number they returned with, especially for the children of Union County. 

Yercheck was optimistic about working with the county commissioners in the future.

“That is one of those things that we’ll certainly have to see,” Yercheck said. 

He said they were good folks. He added that they are a still a part of this process and he was eager to work with them in the future. 

Chairman Jerry Simpson could not be reached before press time. 

Board of Education Attorney Richard Schwartz said they were “ecstatic” about the outcome. 

“I don’t think anybody could get a verdict that big” and say they were not surprised, Schwartz said when asked if he was surprised by the outcome. 

Schwartz said this is his first mediation trial since the statute was recently changed, however, it is one of the longest trials he has done. 

The jurors, after spending about eight weeks together, took group pictures in the lobby and talked about reunions in the future. They took pictures with deputies who had been with them in court and gave them hugs. A group waited outside for the Board of Education members, Schwartz and other UCPS staff to hug and say goodbye. Schwartz, again, told the jury they were one of the most diligent and hard-working juries he had seen and thanked them for their time.