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Hawkins and Rogersville BOEs ask attorney general to settle bus bill dispute

May 9th, 2014 5:03 pm by Jeff Bobo

Hawkins and Rogersville BOEs ask attorney general to settle bus bill dispute

ROGERSVILLE — The Hawkins County and Rogersville school boards couldn't overcome a transportation contract stalemate during a joint meeting Thursday evening, and instead opted to put the question in the hands of the attorney general.

The question centers around whether the county school system can bill the city school system for busing students.

The county has generated an annual cost figure of $86,491 to transport approximately 140 city school students during the school year.

The Rogersville City School BOE, and other city leaders, argue that the county property taxes they pay should already entitle city students to transportation on county school buses.

Of the $2 million in county property taxes generated by Rogersville city residents, approximately 6 percent or $189,979 goes into the county schools transportation fund.

"After reviewing that and looking at the numbers we felt cost is covered, and there shouldn't be any additional funds requested," RCS board chairman Reed Matney said. "We're all Hawkins county residents. We just happen to reside in the city."

Hawkins County assistant superintendent Steve Starnes noted that in generating the formula for the city school bus bill the county school system didn't include its liability insurance bill, its ongoing school bus loan payments for bus payments, and other expenses totaling more than $1.2 million.

Starnes also said about half of Rogersville property tax revenue comes from businesses.

"I think it would be hard to sustain those businesses just on the residents of the city, and not the county residents as well," Starnes said.

Rogersville City Attorney Bill Phillips compared this transportation dispute between the city and the county to the small school lawsuits of the mid-1990s.

Those lawsuits centered around the state's biggest counties including Knox, Hamilton, Shelby and Davidson, receiving the substantial portion of the funds from the state, while smaller counties were not.

The Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that the state Constitution requires that the General Assembly support and maintain equal provision for students whether in small counties or large counties.

"If you charge Hawkins County children who happen to go to the Rogersville City School additional money, or don't give them credit for the money their parents have paid in taxes, then you're not being equal," Phillips said. "And the citizens of Rogersville, and the children of Rogersville, are being denied equal protection under the law. I submit what you have done is exactly what Shelby, Knox, Hamilton and Davidson counties did to you back in the 1990s. The Supreme Court rectified that and said you've got to have equal funding for school children throughout the state of Tennessee."

Phillips added, "That's the legal aspect of it, but it really boils down to fairness."

Hawkins County BOE member Bob Larkins' suggested posing the question to the state attorney general for an opinion was approved unanimously. Attorney general opinions usually take 30 to 60 days.

"Regardless of the fairness issue, if (the transportation bill) is legal it's legal, and it's not legal we need to discontinue it," Larkins said. "That (A.G. opinion) would be our directive and point us in the way we should go. If the attorney general advises it's an illegal act and we're violating the Constitution, we don't want to do that."

Phillips said he will draft the questions for the attorney general, and provide a copy to the county attorney — who happens to be his bother Jim Phillips — to review and submit to the county BOE for final approval.

Bill Phillips noted that the attorney general and Supreme Court differed in the small school lawsuits, however.

It will be a three-part question asking if the county school system's transportation fee to the RCS BOE is legal; should the city be given credit for the portion of its taxes that go toward county school transportation; and does the county BOE have the authority to issue a transportation bill, or does that responsibility fall on the county commission.

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