Mitford Case Gets Final Hearing

COLUMBIA – Attorneys for the Fairfield and Chester county school districts made their final pitches Thursday morning before the highest court in the state in the battle between the district over which district should pay to educate the approximately 200 students living in the Mitford community in Fairfield County but attending Chester County schools.

Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney representing Fairfield County Schools, argued that the special legislation introduced and passed in 2010 mandating that Fairfield fork over tuition for the Mitford students (based on a formula of 103 percent of Chester’s per-pupil costs) was unconstitutional. That argument failed to gain traction in the lower courts, and in July of 2012, Fifth Circuit Court Judge J. Ernest Kinard ruled in favor of Chester County and released nearly $2 million in back payments.

Derfner again made that argument before the State Supreme Court Thursday, and said a general law should be applied to the Mitford conflict, a law that would apply to every district in the state. But Derfner faced some hard questions from the five-judge panel.

“Where do we draw the line?” Chief Justice Jean H. Toal asked. “We have school districts all over the state that are governed by special law. If we adopt your view, we’re going to interrupt a lot of long-term arrangements that have been in place for some time.”

But, Derfner argued, the Mitford legislation was different than all of the other special laws that govern school districts in South Carolina.

“No other statute that I know of sets tuition the way this one does,” Derfner said. “It may be a good idea, but it is a revolutionary idea and should be dealt with with a general law.”

John M. Reagle, of the Childs and Halligan law firm in Columbia, also faced a tough cross examination from the judges in his argument for Chester and the validity of the law.

“How is it appropriate to treat Fairfield differently than any other county in the state?” Justice Kaye G. Hearn asked.

Reagle said the general law requires appropriate arrangements to be made between school districts in cases where a large number of students cross district lines. In the case of Mitford, those arrangements were not made between the Chester and Fairfield districts. In fact, an arrangement did exist between the districts from 1972 to 2007, during which time Fairfield paid Chester $25,000 a year. 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.

“Why should Fairfield pay to educate these kids?” Justice Donald M. Beatty asked.

“Because it is the right thing to do,” Reagle answered. “This relationship was fostered for 40 years.”

In his lower court ruling, Judge Kinard noted that Article III of the S.C. Constitution “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.

The Court recessed Thursday giving no indication of when a ruling would be forthcoming.