High Court to Hear Mitford Appeal

WINNSBORO – The long and expensive battle between the Fairfield and Chester county school districts is finally nearing its conclusion, as the Fairfield County School District was notified last week that the S.C. Supreme Court will hear the appeal in the dispute over which district should pay to educate the approximately 200 students living in the Mitford community in Fairfield County but attending Chester County schools.

Beth Reid (District 7), Chairwoman of the Fairfield County School Board, announced the high court’s decision to hear the appeal at Tuesday night’s Board meeting at Fairfield Middle School. The State Supreme Court will hear the case on Nov. 7 at 9:30 a.m. in Columbia. The hearing is open to the public, Reid said. Armand Derfner, a Constitutional lawyer from Charleston, has represented Fairfield County Schools since the District originally filed suit in 2010 in an effort to overturn local legislation introduced by State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) mandating that the payment policy, which had stood since 1972, continue.

In July 2012, Fifth Circuit Court Judge J. Ernest Kinard ruled in favor of Chester County and released nearly $2 million in back payments, which had been accruing with the Fairfield County Treasurer since the start of the 2009-2010 school year. A month later, the Fairfield School Board voted 5-2 to appeal the ruling. Board members Henry Miller (District 3), Andrea Harrison (District 1) and Annie McDaniel (District 4) voted for the appeal, as did then Board members Marchella Pauling and Danielle Miller. Reid and Board member Bobby Cunningham (District 5) voted against.

Mitford students live within a 15-minute bus ride from the Chester schools in Great Falls, while a bus ride to Fairfield schools takes several hours each way. From 1972 to 2007, Fairfield paid Chester County $25,000 a year to cover the cost of educating the approximately 200 Mitford children in Chester schools. When those payments abruptly stopped under then Superintendent Samantha Ingram and then Chairwoman Catherine Kennedy, Coleman stepped in to negotiate a deal between the districts. In early 2010, an agreement had been struck to bring the payments up to date, but after sending $50,000 to Chester, Fairfield again ceased payments. Coleman then introduced local legislation to ensure the continuation of the payments. Coleman’s bill (S.1405) called for Fairfield to annually pay Chester 103 percent of Chester’s prior year per-pupil cost for each Mitford student enrolled in Chester schools.

The District filed suit in July of 2010, claiming that the legislation was unconstitutional in that it conflicted with general law as set forth by Article III, Section 34 of the S.C. State Constitution, where local legislation is prohibited when a general law may apply, or when lawmakers have a “logical basis” for the legislation.

In his ruling, Judge Kinard noted that Article III “generally prohibits special legislation where a general law can be made to apply,” but also said that “the prohibition of special legislation is not absolute, and special legislation is not unconstitutional where the General Assembly has a logical basis and sound reason for resorting to special legislation.”

Kinard’s ruling stated that the Fairfield County School District “presented no evidence” that the General Assembly had abused its discretion in enacting this special legislation. The ruling also stated that the General Assembly did, in fact, have “a logical basis and sound reason” for enacting this special law.

Kinard also said that, based on Fairfield County’s local per student funding level of $8,875 versus Chester County’s local per student funding level of $3,452, Chester County Schools are “not unduly profiting” from the arrangement and Fairfield County Schools are not being “unreasonably burdened.”

“(The Fairfield County School District) is actually spending over $5,000 less per student than its per student revenue,” the ruling states.

At the time the Board voted to appeal the ruling, Cunningham estimated that the District had spent more than $300,000 fighting the case. Current estimates on that cost were not available at press time.

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