Budget lawsuit ‘nuclear option’

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 22, 2014

As the Rowan-Salisbury Board of Education and county commission have haggled for months over budget and central office issues, the possibility of a lawsuit has lurked in the background.
Now, with the school board asking a mediator to declare discussions at a dead end, legal action isn’t just hovering in the shadows like a smelly, obnoxious interloper seeking a seat at the table. It’s looking more like a reality — an unwelcome and disappointing turn given the recent signs the two boards were moving toward agreement on capital spending issues.
As of Tuesday evening, however, they remained about $12 million apart. That’s the difference between the commissioners’ approval of $28.5 million and the amount school officials are seeking for a central office, long-delayed improvements at Knox Middle and a new consolidated elementary school in west Rowan. Some commissioners acknowledged the capital needs requests were justified but said they couldn’t immediately be fully funded without a tax increase, which a majority of the board opposes. Hence the school board’s request that the mediator declare an impasse, clearing the way for legal action.
While state law gives school systems the right to sue over funding disagreements — a right the legislature considered taking away last year — it’s a mechanism that has been infrequently used, the “nuclear option” of local spending disputes. The Union County school board recently sued the county commission after mediation failed, successfully winning its case before a jury. But in a typical year, only about five school districts seek mediation in North Carolina, according to a professor at the UNC School of Government. That’s doesn’t mean that school boards and purse-holding county commissioners easily find agreement on funding issues. They rarely do. But the threat of mediation is often enough to bring deadlocked boards to the table to work out a compromise — and a lawsuit inevitably consumes time, tax money and whatever modicum of good will may still exist between battling governmental bodies.
The possibility of any compromise looked a lot dimmer Tuesday evening than when the day dawned. While Union school officials won their case, there’s no predicting what may happen if this goes to court in Rowan County. We elect our local officials to make these decisions, with the only court involved the court of public opinion. That they’ve failed to reach agreement and a jury may now be empaneled to resolve such a crucial spending issue doesn’t simply mean mediation has been a wasted opportunity. It also means that local government has failed to fulfill one of its most basic functions.