The legal battle that’s been going on for several years between the Lexington-Richland District 5 School Board and former board member Kim Murphy appeared to be coming to an end this week.
In an unexpected move at the April 8 meeting, the board agreed to dismiss a $10 million legal action against Murphy, provided she does not take any more legal actions of her own against the district.
But the offer did not appear to go well with Murphy’s attorney, Paul Porter.
“We will not accept this offer,” Porter said Tuesday.
But he did not rule out acceptance of a different offer that would better serve his client’s interests.
Murphy did not offer any public response, referring questions to her attorney.
According to a statement publicly delivered by board member Ed White, the district agreed to dismiss the $10 million claim if Murphy agrees not to take any further legal actions against the district for the next five years. If she does, the district will have the option to file another claim against her for $2 million, according to the statement.
Despite the offer, the district contends its move to recover damages was valid because she should be held accountable for her actions. White denied the district was mistreating Murphy.
“The district is not bullying,” White said of a comment frequently used by critics to describe the district’s handling of the case.
The unexpected decision follows years of legal battles between Murphy, who was elected to the board in 2010, and the school district.
After voters approved several upgrades to Chapin High School in a 2008 bond referendum, the district wanted to use the money to build a new academic building, expand athletic facilities and add a parking lot. The plan also called for filling a creek bed and some wetlands near Chapin High School. But Murphy took legal steps to try to stop the plan, contending it would damage the environment.
In 2013 the board voted to remove her from office after determining she could not serve in the Richland County seat she held because she actually lived in Lexington County.
She appealed that decision.
The district filed a response to her appeal that said the board acted appropriately, and also filed a counterclaim, contending that she caused construction delays that cost the district more than $10 million.
Murphy lost the court battle over her removal, but the district’s counterclaim continued, and entered mediation during the last few months.
“It’s time to put an end to it,” Board Chairman Robert Gantt said after this week's board meeting, when asked what prompted the offer of a dismissal.
Board members were unanimous in approving the action.
“I hope Mrs. Murphy accepts this offer,” said board member Beth Hutchison. She said the legal actions she brought against the district were “frivolous.”
Board member Jan Hammond said it’s been “too much time and money.” The decision proposed by the board is “a way out for both parties.”
School District Five attorney John Reagle said in a news release that the case is nearing trial and that the offer is “an effort to promote resolution to this matter, taking into account a resolution that protects the district, students, and taxpayers from further wasteful and unnecessary litigation as well as protecting Ms. Murphy’s constitutional rights.”
“Much has been said about the district ‘bullying’ Ms. Murphy,” said Reagle. “However, as alleged in the district’s counterclaims, her actions deprived the students of the timely use of new and improved facilities at Chapin High School. Just as the school district would seek to hold anyone accountable for damages to school property caused by their improper and disruptive acts … the school board was obligated as stewards of the school district’s resources and assets to protect its students’ and taxpayers’ interests to hold Ms. Murphy accountable for the consequences of her abusive appeals and lawsuits in pursuit of her personal interests.”
The proposal did not prompt a positive response from Porter.
“Their vote is a show vote,” Porter said in a statement. “The board rolled out this show vote in a very public fashion because they are scared they look like bullies.”
The fact that they think an offer asking someone to voluntarily restrict their own rights will make the board look reasonable shows that they are “out of touch and that they have more pride than sense,” Porter said.
Porter said the board is showing a “flagrant and limited understanding of how constitutional rights work.”
It’s still unclear if Murphy will wind up in a court trial.