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Judge hears arguments over court-ordered $1.7 billion for public schools as Leandro case heads to court

Whether or not a school is funded well depends a lot on where that school is located.
LA Johnson
NPR, file
Whether or not a school is funded well depends a lot on where that school is located.

A decades-long legal battle over equitable funding for public schools was back in the courtroom Wednesday, and a substantial increase in state funding for public education is at stake.

Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson heard arguments today in the Leandro court case over equitable school funding.

The North Carolina Supreme Court has asked Robinson to decide how the recent state budget affects a prior court ruling by Judge David Lee that ordered the state to set aside $1.7 billion for a plan to improve inequities in public schools.

An attorney for the General Assembly argued Lee’s order is now moot, since it was made before the recent passage of the state budget. Attorneys representing the state and school districts say the state budget does not fully fund the court-ordered plan for public schools, but that it could be paid for with money from the state’s rainy-day fund.

Background of Lee’s $1.7 billion dollar order

Judge Lee’s ruling was intended to fund two years of an eight-year comprehensive remedial plan to address inequities in public schools.

Lee ordered the transfer of state funds in November, before the General Assembly had passed a state budget. At the time, schools were faced with the possibility of two more years of no new state funding beyond recurring funding in their prior biennial budget, since a state budget had not been enacted since 2017.

Since the time Lee issued that ruling:

  • Governor Roy Cooper has signed the General Assembly’s budget into state law, 
  • Several parties, including the General Assembly, have appealed Lee’s order and the North Carolina Supreme Court has agreed to take up the case, and
  • Supreme Court chief justice Paul Newby has removed Lee from oversight of the Leandro case and reassigned the case to Michael Robinson.

The General Assembly’s Position

Attorneys for Republican leaders in the General Assembly argue the recent passage of a state budget makes Lee’s ruling moot.

“As the Order itself makes clear, it was issued to remedy a situation — the absence of a budget — that no longer exists,” attorneys for the General Assembly wrote in a brief.

The General Assembly’s position is that the state budget met the state’s obligation to provide North Carolina children with a sound, basic education, and that there are no available funds that could be spent on education that lawmakers have not already committed for other purposes.

Moreover, the General Assembly argues the court does not have authority to order how the state spends tax dollars, because the state constitution grants that power to the legislative branch.

“The Constitution says that the General Assembly has the power of the purse,” said legislative attorney Matthew Tilley. “The General Assembly is to weigh the governor's proposed budget, not be told that it is constitutionally mandated.”

The State and Plaintiff’s Positions

The plaintiffs and the defendant in the Leandro case are in an unusual position in that they often agree on major points. In other words, the school districts involved in the case and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration agree that the state should increase funding to improve conditions in schools.

The attorney general’s office says the state budget funds a little over half the costs of the comprehensive remedial plan that was approved by the court in June 2021. Attorneys for the school districts agree. They say the plan is underfunded by about $795 million.

Senior deputy attorney general Amar Majmundar said the General Assembly has put surplus money in the state’s rainy-day fund that is beyond what is required by state law and could be redirected to fund the rest of the remedial plan.

"We know there's money available," Majmundar said. "We know that the available money was put in the savings reserves accounts."

In closing arguments, the plaintiff’s attorney Melanie Black Dubis urged for the focus to remain on the constitutional rights of children as affirmed by prior Supreme Court rulings in the Leandro case.

“It’s not what the state wants, it’s not what the Democrats want, it’s not what anybody wants. It’s what, after 28 years, the court has determined is necessary,” Dubis said. “Necessary to fulfill the state’s obligations to the children of North Carolina.”

Next Steps

Robinson has until next Wednesday to rule on how the 2021 biennial state budget factors into the case. He has asked the North Carolina Attorney General’s office to provide more detailed information on how Lee’s ruling ordered funding to be distributed to various state agencies and how those amounts were calculated.

The state Supreme Court plans to take up the Leandro case to consider larger constitutional issues regarding the rights of schoolchildren and the separation of powers between branches of government.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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