Mitford Battle Comes to a Close

High Court Upholds Ruling in Favor of Chester County

WINNSBORO – In a 3-2 ruling filed last week by the S.C. Supreme Court, the four-year chapter commonly known as the “Mitford Case” came to a close for the Fairfield County School District, with the High Court affirming a lower court’s ruling in favor of Chester County Schools.

The Fairfield County School District’s failed effort to thwart special legislation crafted to cover Chester’s cost of educating Mitford students means Fairfield County will annually shell out in local revenue to Chester 103 percent of Chester’s per pupil cost for each student residing in Mitford and enrolled in Chester County schools.

“We’re obviously disappointed the ruling didn’t go in our favor,” Board Chairwoman Beth Reid said, “but I also feel it never should have escalated to this point. Previous Boards should have reached a compromise that would have prevented the legislative delegation from feeling the necessity to jump in. The whole situation could have been avoided if previous Boards had acted responsibly.”

From 1972 to 2007, Fairfield paid Chester County $25,000 a year to cover the cost of educating the approximately 200 Mitford children enrolled in Chester schools. When those payments suddenly stopped under then Superintendent Samantha Ingram and then Chairwoman Catherine Kennedy, State Sen. Creighton Coleman (D-17) stepped in to negotiate a deal between the districts. In early 2010, an agreement was struck to bring the payments up to date, but after remitting $50,000 to Chester, Fairfield once again abruptly ceased payments. Coleman then introduced local legislation to ensure the continuation of the payments. Coleman’s bill 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 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.

“Let me go back to day one, when we were paying (Chester) $25,000 a year,” Cunningham said last week. “That was a sleeping dog that should have been left on the porch undisturbed.”

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

Arguing the case before the Supreme Court last November, Armand Derfner, a Charleston attorney representing Fairfield County Schools, said that Coleman’s special legislation was unconstitutional. Derfner argued that 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 during the hearing. “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.”

Representing the Chester County School District in the case, John M. Reagle, of the Childs and Halligan law firm in Columbia, also faced a tough cross examination from the judges during the November hearing.

“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 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 stopped, Coleman stepped in with special legislation.

“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.”

The Supreme Court filed its ruling on July 16, affirming Kinard’s ruling that the Fairfield County School District “presented no evidence” that the General Assembly had abused its discretion in enacting this special legislation. Justice Costa M. Pleicones wrote for the majority. Justice John W. Kittredge and Chief Justice Toal concurred.

In the dissenting opinion, Justice Beatty said the Court took a “myopic” view of the case, focusing only on the procedures while failing to “fully address the constitutional propriety” of the special legislation. Justice Hearn concurred.

As of late last year, the Fairfield County School District had spent nearly $150,000 in legal fees on the case. Reid said the District expects a final bill from Derfner in the next month.

With the Chester money having been held in escrow over the duration of the legal battle, Reid said the payments would not have an immediate impact on the District’s bottom line budget. The payments would, however, be an ongoing line item to be considered in future budgets, she said.