Politics & Government

NC school boards could lose their power to sue counties for construction money

North Carolina school boards could lose the ability to sue county boards of commissioners to get more money for school construction projects.

The state Senate’s budget plan would remove the lawsuit threat that school districts have used over the years to try to get commissioners to increase the amount of money for building and renovating schools. This comes after state lawmakers already voted last year to remove the ability of school boards to sue counties for more money to operate schools.

Now both county governments and school boards are lobbying state lawmakers as they work out a compromise budget. The House had not included the new limit on school boards in its budget.

“Counties have an obligation by statue to provide funding for school construction,” Kevin Leonard, executive director of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners, said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s not like they’re not going to do it.

“Leaders in county government have to provide the facilities that are needed for the county. It’s not up to the school board to decide that.”

But school boards are warning that the loss of the lawsuit threat could put students at risk by not giving schools the leverage to get funding for needed facilities.

“You’ve taken a locally elected body and you’ve made it so they have no voice in one of the most important local decisions they make,” said Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations for the N.C. School Boards Association. “The purpose is not to sue counties. But you need to have that pressure in the process to have the other parts in the process be meaningful.”

North Carolina is one of the minority of states where school boards don’t have taxing authority, according to the School Boards Association. This means school boards rely on others for the money they need.

Leonard calls the North Carolina system one of “checks and balances.”

The state is responsible for providing money to operate schools while counties are responsible for the money for building and renovating schools. But there’s overlap.

The Senate and House are working on competing plans to provide state funding for school construction. County governments are providing $3 billion a year to help operate schools while juggling many other funding needs, according to Leonard.

“It’s not like we don’t want to spend money for education,” Leonard said. “It’s always been a top priority.”

Under state law, school boards that don’t feel they’re getting sufficient county funding can go to a mediator. If mediation fails, the school board could file a lawsuit in Superior Court.

Between 1997 and 2015, school boards used the funding dispute process 40 times, with lawsuits being filed in four cases, according to a 2017 legislative staff report. In one of those cases, the N.C. Court of Appeals overturned a $91 million judgment that a jury awarded in 2013 to the Union County school board in its suit against county commissioners.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill removing the ability to sue over the operating budget. Instead of a lawsuit, the legislation said that if mediation fails, an automatic funding formula would be triggered to determine how much the school system gets.

The 2018 law didn’t remove the ability to sue over capital funding. Instead, it called for the creation of a working group made up of school and county officials to recommend how to resolve disputes over school construction funding.

In its final report, the working group recommended that school boards and commissioners hold regular meetings to reduce the need for lawsuits. While the working group didn’t recommend adding new restrictions on letting school boards sue counties, Senate budget writers included that provision.

The Association of County Commissioners has been trying for years to get state lawmakers to remove the lawsuit option for school funding. While the lawsuits are rarely filed, Leonard said it creates an adversarial situation that can cause irreparable harm to communities.

But in a May email, the School Boards Association told its members that the Senate budget “removes the pressure and incentive for county commissioners to work with school boards at every stage of the process to address school capital needs.”

“This makes school capital completely at the whim of county commissioners, regardless of health or safety risks to the students that you serve,” the School Boards Association said in the email. “While you may not see an immediate looming issue for your district, over time this could create a severe school building deficit in your school district due to the age, condition, or capacity of your schools.”

Leonard said that the Senate budget simply removes the ability of school boards to force taxpayer money to be spent on litigation. If the public feels school construction is being underfunded, he said, voters will take care of it in a way that doesn’t require a lawsuit.

“The people will make a decision whether they like their school board or their county commissioners,” Leonard said. “If they’re not building the schools and living up to to their responsibilities, they’ll vote them out.”

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.