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Should the NCGA pay to address school inequities? An education funding dispute returns to NC

Louise Woods of Charlotte holds pencils and a protest sign near the Aycock monument on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, directly across from the North Carolina Supreme Court chambers in Raleigh where the Leandro funding case was being heard. Woods is a former Charlotte Mecklenburg school board member and was one of hundreds protesting near the court chambers.
Jason deBruyn
/
WUNC
Louise Woods of Charlotte holds pencils and a protest sign near the Aycock monument on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024, directly across from the North Carolina Supreme Court chambers in Raleigh where the Leandro funding case was being heard. Woods is a former Charlotte Mecklenburg school board member and was one of hundreds protesting near the court chambers.

The North Carolina Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in the ongoing school funding case known as Leandro.

This is the fifth time the Court has heard the case. This appeal brought on by attorneys for state lawmakers was specifically about how much money the state owes to fund an eight-year, $5.6 billion improvement plan for public schools.

The longstanding education funding case returned to the state's highest court hardly a year after a majority of justices — all Democrats — agreed that taxpayer money could be moved to spend on addressing schooling inequities statewide without the express approval of legislators.

A few days after the court's milestone 2022 ruling, registered Republicans won back a majority on the seven-member court after success in statewide elections for two seats.

With the partisan shift having taking effect, the five GOP justices agreed last fall to consider additional arguments sought by Republican legislative leaders opposed to the 2022 decision. Those lawmakers contend only the General Assembly can appropriate state funds.

Today, the General Assembly's attorney Matthew Tilley argued the Court's decision from about 14 months ago that upheld the funding plan was wrongly decided. Tilley argued that the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision conflicts with the Court’s first decision in 1997.

“If it conflicts with the constitution, if it conflicts with prior precedent…then it should be overturned and corrected at the next possible moment,” Tilley said in his closing statement.

Attorneys representing North Carolina school boards argue that overturning precedent would violate judicial standards and procedures, especially since legislative attorneys missed their deadline to appeal the decision.

The legislature's attorneys waited until after the balance on the Supreme Court shifted to Republicans to request a hearing on a more narrow matter regarding a calculation of how much the state owed on the remedial plan.

“It has been the rule of this court for over 100 years, that the court will not disturb its prior holding in the same case – even if it would have overturned that holding on a properly presented petition for rehearing. We do not have a properly presented petition for rehearing,” said Melanie Dubis, an attorney for school districts.

Supreme Court justices asked several lines of questions regarding who has standing to be a party to the case. Justices Trey Allen and Richard Dietz, both Republicans, raised questions about whether school boards that have been serving as plaintiffs have legal standing to represent their students.

“Are any of the named plaintiffs actually public school students?” Allen asked.

The students who were originally plaintiffs in the case when it was filed in 1994 are now all adults and are no longer parties in the court proceedings. The interests of students are now represented by their local school boards.

“I'm still concerned about what we do with students in other parts of the state that have an idea of how Leandro can fix the constitutional violation that they're suffering, and just aren't getting a voice in this case,” said Justice Richard Dietz, who was elected to the Supreme Court in 2022.

“Many of these issues that were being raised today on whether or not the school districts have standing, whether or not there was authority to enter a statewide remedial order – and those were already judged by the court in 2022,” David Hinojosa, an attorney representing students in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, told WUNC.

Hinojosa said it is possible that justices might remand the case to a lower court to require more parties to give updated evidence in the case or weigh in on a resolution. He said an overturning of past precedent could harm public trust in the Supreme Court.

“Part of the public’s trust in the court is having finality of judgment,” Hinojosa said. "That's an integral part of our whole democratic process and the separation of powers."

The state Supreme Court is expected to release a ruling in the coming months.

Protesters gathered on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 directly across from the North Carolina Supreme Court chambers in Raleigh where the Leandro funding case was being heard.
Jason deBruyn
/
WUNC
Protesters gathered on Thursday, Feb. 22, 2024 directly across from the North Carolina Supreme Court chambers in Raleigh where the Leandro funding case was being heard.

Protesters rally, call for state Supreme Court to uphold funding ruling

Meanwhile, a few hundred protesters gathered outside the state capitol to call for the North Carolina Supreme Court to uphold the 2022 ruling to fund public schools improvements.

“We gather and rally as this North Carolina state Supreme Court reconsiders a decision that should never be reconsidered,” said the Rev. Paul Ford of Winston-Salem, who emceed the rally hosted by the advocacy group Every Child NC.

“This is not a child’s game where if you don’t like the four outcomes of the court’s ruling, you say, ‘Oh, I take it back. Do over,” said protester Kim Biondi, a mother and former teacher from Cabarrus County.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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