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Appeals court decision in Union County case

The N.C. Court of Appeals has sent the Union County Schools budget dispute back to trial, holding that the trial proceedings had been impermissibly broad by seeking more funds than had been requested in the proposed budget. This removes the jury award of an additional $91 million to be added to the 2013-14 Union County Schools budget. The most Union County Schools could get on remand is the shortfall between what the district had requested in its proposed budget and what the commissioners authorized which is about $9.3 million.

The Union County Schools had requested $86,180,152 in current expense funds. The County Commissioners approved a budget of $82,260,408, producing a shortfall of $3,919,744. For capital outlay, the school board had requested $8,357,859 and the commissioners approved $3,000,000, producing a $5,357,859 shortfall. Combined this created a $9,277,603 shortfall.

At the trial, Union County Schools argued that  the commissioners had failed to adequately fund the schools for a period of years, especially in capital outlay. They provided evidence of this to the jury. The jury returned an astounding verdict finding that the commissioners needed to fund an additional $4,973,134 in current expense and $86,184,005 for capital outlay for the 2013-14 budget year. Combined this was a $91,157,139 award.

The Court of Appeals ruled against Union County Schools in their budget dispute, removing the $91,157,139 award and remanding to trial solely on the 2013-14 budget shortfall of $9,277,603. The court sided with defendants in holding that the budget dispute is only for that year and cannot consider evidence outside of the proposed budget request. 

The Court of Appeals also found error in the jury instructions on the constitutional right to a sound, basic education. The instructions stated that “[a] student who is performing below grade level is … not obtaining a sound basic education in the subject matter being tested. A student who is performing at grade level or above … is obtaining a sound basic education.” The Court of Appeals held that this was misleading to the jury, stating that “[s]chool funding cannot guarantee student performance; but only the opportunity for students to receive a sound basic education.”

Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney and state constitutional scholar.