The Fairfield School Board held a specially called meeting Tuesday night to receive legal advice about a pending appeal in a lawsuit between Chester County School District and the Fairfield County School District concerning paying for educating students in the Mitford area.
In an earlier meeting, the board voted in a special executive session to move forward with the appeal; however at that time Harrison said they had not been advised that funds held in the county treasury for Chester County would be released during the 30 day time period of appeal.
Since it was short notice and such an important decision, the board chose to meet in specially called executive session.
At the time of the meeting the board was split about restricting funds and about releasing funds to Chester, according to board Chairwoman Andrea Harrison.
She said they had detailed, productive conversations with the school district’s attorney Armond Derfner.
After those conversations board members chose to take his advice and focus on the big picture. That advice included releasing the disputed funds to Chester County while the appeal is running its course.
Derfner said, “The reason for this has nothing to do with the strength or weakness of the appeal; it is simply a rule governing all appeals of ‘money judgements,’ which the Order in this case resembles.
Rather the rule is based on the idea that if the appeal is successful, the money will be paid back, and that is true in this case.
“If our appeal is successful, the money paid by the treasurer to the Chester district will absolutely be paid back,”Derfner said.
Instead of filing for a stay or a supersede as of the order to release the funds, legal counsel advised the funds be released, pointing to the bigger picture in the appeals process.
Such a stay motion in Derfner’s and legal counsel Alice Paylor’s opinions is unlikely to be granted because the petition must begin in the lower court.
At that level, they said, “the circuit Judge will most certainly deny it and we would then have to appeal to the Supreme Court, which will likely also deny our motion.”
Derfner and Paylor also said that, “filing such a motion could undermine the appeal, which is our main interest. When we go to court with a case we want to put our best foot forward and we want our first impression to be a strong one.”
His legal advice is that including a motion for stay would weaken the district’s position with the appeal court case.
“Now, having looked into it,” Derfner said, “I can recommend strongly, and without hesitation, that the best course is not to try to interfere with the normal workings of the Supreme Court Rules, but instead to put our work into the main appeal which we hope will result in a decision that the special law about Mitford tuition will be held unconstitutional.”
The release of funds will not affect school district budget for this year.
The disputed funds for the Mitford students had been placed in escrow. Therefore they did not figure into the final school budget.
The amount to be withheld was factored into the current budget.
That said, the choice to release the funds remained controversial.
“Those are still Fairfield tax dollars going to another county. That was the primary reason those of us who were against releasing the funds felt as we did,” Harrison said. “There would be no detrimental effect on Fairfield County right now, but whose to say how it would effect the county long term until the litigation is resolved?”