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New judge taking over North Carolina school funding case

Children at the Every Child NC rally in Raleigh made signs. This white sign says "give schools the money they need."
Josh Sullivan
/
WUNC
Durham resident Jen Story's daughters Evie and Olivia attended the Every Child NC rally in Raleigh on August 27, 2022, with homemade signs. At the event, public school advocates called for lawmakers to fund a plan to improve public schools.

A new trial judge is presiding over a long-running North Carolina school funding case — in particular compliance with a recent state Supreme Court ruling that declared the judicial branch correctly ordered funds be spent to address education inequities.

Chief Justice Paul Newby assigned Superior Court Judge James Ammons last week to oversee what is known as the “Leandro” case, named after an original plaintiff in a lawsuit filed in 1995. Among Ammons' first duties will be to determine how much additional government money must be spent to comply with a 2021 order that found the state was still falling short of giving all children the “opportunity for a sound basic education.”

Ammons, from Cumberland County, succeeds Judge Mike Robinson, who asked Newby in a Nov. 30 letter that he be removed, citing his workload within North Carolina Business Court. Newby had directed Robinson less than a year ago to oversee the case from Judge David Lee, who had recently reached the judiciary's mandatory retirement age.

In a 4-3 ruling on Nov. 4, the Supreme Court declared it had been legitimate for Lee to order the movement of $1.75 billion from state coffers to agencies to implement two years of an eight-year education remedial plan that he approved earlier. The justices in the majority — all of the court's registered Democrats — said it was appropriate for Lee to direct the transfer without a specific General Assembly law. They cited constitutional provisions and the unwillingness of the rest of state government — particularly the legislature — to spend the funds. The transfer was blocked on appeal.

Based on the passage of the 2021 budget law, Robinson had already lowered the proposed transfer to $785 million before the justices ruled in November. The majority opinion directed that a trial court take another look at the figure in light of the 2022 budget law. Chief deputy state budget director Anca Elena Grozav filed an affidavit on Dec. 19 calculating the gap at $678 million.

A briefing schedule presented to Robinson last month by key parties in the case gave everyone in the litigation, including Republican legislative leaders, until Jan. 20 to respond. A hearing presided over by Ammons has not been scheduled.

Any ruling by Ammons could be appealed again to the Supreme Court, where now five of the seven justices are Republican following the Nov. 8 elections. Three of those five already on the court wrote a dissenting opinion Nov. 4, contending that Lee couldn't order the transfer because only the General Assembly has power under the state constitution to allocate funds from state coffers. It's possible an appeal could bring a different result than the one in November.

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