Mark S. Boardman, the Chelsea-based attorney for the Walker County Board of Education, released records Friday confirming that a Montgomery County circuit judge had ruled in favor of local schools in …
Mark S. Boardman, the Chelsea-based attorney for the Walker County Board of Education, released records Friday confirming that a Montgomery County circuit judge had ruled in favor of local schools in the matter of the Walker County Commission's distribution of sales tax revenue.
However, the ruling came after the judge made a mistake, writing originally that he was ruling for the commission.
Boardman, who also represents Jasper City Schools, said he is not involved in the case as a counsel of record, as the board is being represented by the Bradley Arant Boult Cummings law firm in Birmingham, but that he had been informed of the progress of the case.
Bentley Owens III of Ellis, Head, Owens and Justice n Columbiana is representing the county, while Wendell Allen of Bradley Arant is representing the school boards. Neither could be reached for comment.
In the case of Walker County Commission v. Alabama Department of Examiners of Public Accounts, Circuit Court Judge Truman M. Hobbs had entered an order on May 14 saying, "The court finds in favor of the plaintiff Walker County Commission. There will be a hearing on June 28, 2018, at 4:30 p.m. This will be a hearing to determine what the recommendation should be, and will be held in Courtroom 3-A, Montgomery County Courthouse, 251 South Lawrence Street, Montgomery, Alabama."
Boardman said that order left the Bradley Arant lawyers confused, as they felt the judge indicated the school board would win. "They filed a motion to ask the judge for a clarification," he said.
After the judge came back from a vacation, he discovered the motion — and the fact he entered the wrong order, he said. That led to a new order entered on Tuesday at 2:56 p.m.
"The order of May 14, 2018, is withdrawn with the profuse apologies of the court for the confusion it surely caused. There was an obvious breakdown in communication in this office," Hobbs wrote. "The court intends to enter an order finding against the Walker County Commission. The hearing is set on June 28, 2018, to discuss what relief is appropriate."
Shortly afterward, Walker County Superintendent of Education Jason Adkins posted on Facebook, "A few seconds ago, the courts ruled that the Walker County Commission owes the Walker County Schools $1.3 million owed to the kids of Walker County. The following comes from one of our excellent attorneys.
"Good news in the tax case: 15 minutes ago, the court in Montgomery issued an order withdrawing the previous order and saying that the court intends to enter an order that the Walker County Commission loses. Thanks -- Mark."
Adkins also posted a political advertisement that afternoon on Facebook to note the order.
When the Walker County Board of Education heard concerns from District 4 board member Lee Ann Headrick on Thursday night about how school board reserves had dwindled, Adkins was eventually heard to say the board also stands to gain funds from the legal issue with the commission, adding the board was going into mediation on the matter.
In a phone call hours later, Adkins said the board "kind of gambled on the fact that, we felt like at the end of the day we'll have money coming" due to the lawsuit. "I figure there will be an appeal along the way possibly, but we're going into mediation on that, and I think cooler heads will prevail."
In June of last year, Adkins said the commission had started the suit to ask for declaratory judgment after state auditors found the commission had wrongly kept a fee for collecting sales tax monies to later be distributed to the Walker County and Jasper City boards of education.
“According to the state auditors, they took a certain amount that should have went to us, and they kept that amount as a fee for collecting the taxes,” Adkins said at the time.
Auditors found the commission owes the Walker County Board of Education $800,000.
In March 2017, the board voted to approve a spoken agreement between Walker County Commission Chairman Jerry Bishop and Adkins, where Adkins was told the commission would gradually pay the $800,000 back to the county school system. However, by June the deal had apparently fallen apart and the commission was asking the Montgomery Circuit Court to determine if they do owe the school systems money.
Adkins said in a June board meeting he is sympathetic with the county commission’s current financial status, but he stands by the auditors’ report that shows money should be repayed.
“I’m for the county commission just like I’m for the Walker County Board of Education. I know they’re strapped for money. I know we all have a very important tax vote coming up, and I know how important it is that the tax pass, but in the grand scheme of things, $800,000 against the millions owed and the millions that stand to be gained is a drop in the bucket,” Adkins said. “We would be negligent in our duty to try not to obtain what they say belongs to the children of both school systems. ... How could either school system simply let it go?”
Boardman said on Friday that over time both the commission and the school boards had requested the judge rule as a matter of law so that the issue wouldn't have to go through a trial.
As for the June 28 hearing, the judge could undertake different possible courses of action — including the possibility that the judge could order the sides to talk to a mediator.
"There is a possibility," he stressed. "I certainly don't want to predict what the judge is going to do because that's the best way to get him mad at you."
Initially, the suit was filed by the county against the Department of Examiners and both the county and Jasper school boards, he said. The school boards were dismissed as defendants, but the judge allowed them back in to be involved as interveners, at the request of the boards, as they would benefit from the revenue.
Boardman said the suit could "definitely" be appealed beyond the circuit court. "In fact, that is what triggered the motion," as that is a usual practice. "But yes, either side can — whatever the judge decides on June 28 or whenever he finally decides it, either side can appeal to the Alabama Court of Civil Appeals or the Alabama Supreme Court." As such, the final outcome could still take a while, depending on whatever action is taken.
It was not known if the commission would discuss the lawsuit at Monday's scheduled meeting, although an executive session is part of the agenda.