Feb. 21, 2011

Johnson, Board of Education file suit against Co. Commission

By Scott Wright

CENTRE — Despite his plea in the Feb. 7 edition of The Post for an out-of-court settlement of a funding dispute, Wade Sprouse and the rest of the Cherokee County Commission have been sued by Superintendent Brian Johnson and the Board of Education (BOE).

An attorney for the BOE issued a 21-day ultimatum to the Commission during its Jan. 24 meeting, demanding resolution to an issue of inadequate county funding of Board offices that allegedly dates back several years.

Twenty-four days later, with no talks scheduled between the two parties and no resolution in sight, Johnson and the Board gave the go-ahead to file the suit Thursday afternoon.

“The Superintendent and Board have attempted for over a year to get the County Commission to provide the monies necessary to comply with the Alabama statute, which is the Commission's duty under the Alabama Code,” read a statement released by the Board's attorney after the official filing on Friday.

The seven-page document names Sprouse, along with commissioners Kimball Parker, Carlton Teague and Elbert St. Clair, and Probate Judge/Commission Chairman Melvyn Salter, as defendants. The five are being sued only in their official capacities.

The lawsuit claims the County Commission has failed to meet the requirements of Alabama Code Section 16-9-24, written in 1940 to provide a county-funded office for the superintendent and his staff.

The lawsuit describes the BOE's current circumstances, which consists of headquarters on Main Street in Centre, a maintenance building in Centre, and a technology office in Cedar Bluff. The suit claims none of the facilities has been adequately funded for “at least the past six years.”

“In addition,” the filing continues, “each of these buildings must have necessary furniture, office equipment, stationery, postage, forms, and supplies as are required … The central office alone is completely non-compliant with this statute.”

In a Jan. 31 story in The Post, County Administrator Tim Burgess said the Commission typically doles out thousands of dollars in voluntary contributions to local schools. Last year alone, Burgess said, that total was over $99,000. The Commission allots an additional $50,000 annually to the BOE specifically for office expenses.

But for Johnson and the BOE, their belief that the county government is not complying with state law trumped any concern over the possibility of being overlooked in future discretionary budgets.

“I respect and appreciate all the work the commissioners do for this county,” Johnson said on Jan. 31. “But this boils down to principle. This is the allocation that the law says we are supposed to get, and I've got to stand up for my employees and the children in our system.”

The lawsuit seeks compensatory damages in the amount of $115,000, plus lost accrued interest, creation of a constructive trust to enforce the judgment, and court costs.

Johnson said he is concerned that inaccurate news stories in the wake of the Jan. 24 meeting with the Commission have left many people confused about exactly what the BOE hopes its legal action will achieve.

“The superintendent and Board are not asking for additional or upgraded office space or equipment,” Johnson's attorney said in a press release. “They simply want the Commission to pay for existing expenses as required by law.”

The attorney's statement said the current economy and threats of addition cuts in the state's education budget have necessitated the Board of Education taking money from its general fund for operating expenses which should be paid for by the county.

“That money could be used at the local school level to fund teachers, support personnel, and, most importantly, provide for our students.”

Attorney Bill Hawkins, who represents the County Commission, declined to comment.

Alabama Code Section 16-9-24

Supervisors; clerical assistants; offices; equipment.

The county board of education may in its discretion provide upon the nomination of the county superintendent of education, at least the following assistants: an elementary school supervisor and a statistical and stenographic clerk. No person shall be eligible for appointment as such supervisor who does not hold a certificate of administration and supervision as required of county superintendents of education. The county board of education may employ additional clerical and professional assistants, including health supervisors, and may reimburse them for all actual traveling expenses necessary in the performance of their official duties. The county superintendent is hereby required to maintain an office at the county seat. The county commission shall provide the county superintendent of education and his professional and clerical assistants with ample, convenient and comfortable office quarters. The county commission shall also provide necessary furniture, office equipment, stationery, postage, forms and supplies required by the county superintendent of education and his assistants.

(School Code 1927, §169; Code 1940, T. 52, §130.)