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Martinsville school board lawyers up

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The City says that if Martinsville reverts from a city to a town, the Martinsville school system would cease to exist — but the School Board disagrees.

At a regular meeting on Sept. 12, the Martinsville School Board voted to retain the legal services of Rodney Young of Timberlake Smith in Staunton specifically for reversion. Speaking with the Bulletin on Friday, Young gave a glimpse of what might be expected by the action.

“We haven’t made any decision on what precisely the next step will be, but under Virginia law, school boards are vested with both constitutional and statutory authority to manage and supervise the public schools,” Young said. “Attempts by the branches of government of other governmental bodies to intrude upon that authority have uniformly met with disfavor in the courts.

Under a mediated agreement between the City and Henry County that the County ultimately failed to approve, school property was carved up between the City and the County without the consent of the Martinsville School Board.

City Attorney Eric Monday said approval would be unnecessary.

Martinsville Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Zeb Talley and School Board Chair Donna Dillard declined to comment and deferred all questions on the matter to Young.

“Whether the city proceeds with a contested reversion or if the agreement initially agreed upon is enforced, that agreement purports to essentially eliminate city schools and consolidate them with county public schools and also purports to transfer property owned by the city school board and the school board has never taken any formal action with regard to those outcomes,” said Young. “The county school board hasn’t taken any formal action either and that’s a concern for the school boards. And how those interests are advanced and moved forward has yet to be determined.”

Young’s practice may be based in Staunton, but he knows a little bit about the area: He is a 1979 graduate of Laurel Park High School.

Young graduated from Clemson University in 1983 and finished law school at the College of William and Mary in 1988. He was an associate with Wright Robinson McCammon Osthimer & Tatum of Washington D.C. from 1988 until 1992, an associate with Wharton Aldhizer & Weaver in Harrisonburg from 1993 to 1996 and a member at the firm from 1997 to 2004, and he’s been a partner at Timberlake Smith since 2004.

Young’s practice focuses predominantly on the statewide representation of Virginia school boards. For the past 20 years, Young said, he has served as general or special counsel to nearly 45 Virginia school boards and regional education programs throughout Virginia, providing legal advice.

“Reversion, as is currently being discussed, will have a significant impact on all citizens of Martinsville and on the Martinsville City Public Schools,” said Young. “The board wants to make sure its views and concerns are considered.”

Young’s argument sounds familiar. Just over a year ago, Martinsville Circuit Court Clerk Ashby Pritchett, at a public hearing held at the New College Institute by the Commission on Local Governments (COLG), said essentially the same thing. In fact, Young told the Bulletin that he was acquainted with Pritchett.

At the public hearing, Pritchett said Martinsville and Henry County do not have the authority to abolish Martinsville City Public Schools and were in violation of state law by proposing to do so.

Pritchett is not only Martinsville’s circuit court clerk for the past 37 years, but he is also a licensed attorney in active status with the Virginia State Bar.

“This municipal reversion case is unique, and no COLG board has seen anything like this,” Pritchett told the Bulletin last year. “The commission will need to carefully construe this reversion agreement before, or if, it submits anything to the special court.”

On Saturday Pritchett told the Bulletin that it appeared to him that the COLG had ignored the filing he had made with them.

“I am suggesting something completely different that was not considered by the city and the county legal counsel when the proposed agreement was prepared for approval ... that the city and county, as separate units of government, cannot abolish a third unit of local government, in this case the city school board, and take its property to balance the costs of a municipal reversion affecting the first two,” Pritchett said a year ago. “Abolition of the city school board and its school division is an unconstitutional act. The city and county exceeded their municipal powers by agreeing to commit an act they are not authorized to do in violation of Virginia’s Dillon Rule.”

The Dillon Rule has been in effect in Virginia since 1896 and limits the authority of local governments to the extend that even small-scale decisions made by local jurisdictions frequently require the approval of the General Assembly.

Young said that the proposed result of reversion on city schools appears to be more of a consolidation than abolishment, but the argument is still the same: One government entity does not have the right to seize authority over another government entity unless the one being seized consents to it.

Bill Wyatt is a reporter for the Martinsville Bulletin. He can be reached at 276-591-7543. Follow him @billdwyatt.

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