Final outcome in NC’s landmark school funding case remains in limbo as legislature seeks to derail enforcement

By: - March 30, 2022 12:18 pm
The word Leandro appears over an empty classroom

Image: Adobe Stock

After nearly three decades, the Leandro case has yet to produce the remedy the plaintiffs say the constitution requires. Now, the courts will weigh in again

Attorney Larry Armstrong has been a part of the state’s landmark Leandro school funding lawsuit for more than 27 years. The attorney for Halifax County Schools filed the original legal challenge in 1994. 

Steve Wrenn, the district’s superintendent at the time, sent a letter to colleagues, Armstrong recalls, estimating that the lawsuit would cost participating school systems about $100,000 in attorney fees.  

“That was several million dollars ago,” Armstrong said. 

Throughout both Democratic and Republican reigns in Raleigh, North Carolina’s public schools have remained woefully underfunded, with schools in low-wealth counties, such as Halifax, struggling to provide children with the sound basic education guaranteed under the state constitution, Armstrong said. 

“There has never been the kind of political will to spend the kind of money it would take to educate all of the children in North Carolina,” Armstrong said. “What the legislature has always done is allocate a certain amount of money and said this is what you’re going to get and do the best you can.”

Attorney Larry Armstrong

Armstrong’s remarks come as the state prepares to write another chapter in the long-running conflict that commenced nearly three decades ago, when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax in the lawsuit. 

A victory in name only?

Although the school districts ultimately prevailed in court, the state has yet to fund low-wealth schools as required. 

The latest development in the saga occurred when state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby recently ordered special Superior Court Judge Mike Robinson to determine and report on how much of the $1.7 billion that’s necessary to fund a comprehensive remedial school improvement plan was included in the current state budget. It will be the third time the courts and the legislature have grappled with the funding question since the original Leandro Supreme Court ruling in 1997. 

Newby appointed Robinson to the case, replacing Superior Court Judge David Lee, on March 21. In November, Lee ordered the state to transfer $1.7 billion from its reserves to fund a spending plan to move the state closer to meeting its constitutional mandate, first articulated in the Supreme Court’s original 1997 ruling, to provide children with a “sound basic education.”

In December, the North Carolina Court of Appeals blocked Lee’s attempt to force the state to transfer the $1.7 billion to the state, ruling 2-1 that Lee can’t require the state to move the money because the legislature didn’t approve the expenditure. 

Superior Court Judge David Lee was replaced without warning

The state, the defendant in the case, must show the court how much of the comprehensive remedial plan was funded in the budget by April 4. Four days later, the plaintiffs will have a chance to respond. Judge Robinson must present his findings to the state Supreme Court by April 20. 

Newby’s decision to replace Lee came without warning and has raised concerns in some circles. Lee had been overseeing the Leandro case since late 2016. He told the Associated Press that he never received any “formal notice or explanation” for the change. 

“My guess on that is as good as yours,” Lee told the AP, adding that Newby is “perfectly at liberty” under the rules to make such changes. 

Amar Majmundar, a senior deputy Attorney General at the N.C. Department of Justice who represented the state during a meeting with Robinson last week, estimated that the state budget funds 30% to 35% of the comprehensive plan.

“We’re kind of at the nascent stage of doing the fiscal analysis and so the number that I’m giving you now is probably more guesswork than it is fact,” Majmundar said. “But it is fact that what is included in the budget is not sufficient to fund years two and three of the remedial plan.” 

Legislative resistance

The remedial plan is based on a detailed school improvement plan developed by WestEd, a consulting firm hired by Gov. Roy Cooper to examine public education in North Carolina. The $1.7 billion would pay for two years of the eight-year, $5.6 billion plan. 

The General Assembly’s Republican leaders, House Speaker Tim Moore, (R-Cleveland) and Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, (R-Rockingham), both intervened in the case in December 2021. 

Berger and Moore contend Lee overstepped his authority when he ordered the $1.7 billion transfer to pay for two years of the remedial plan.  

“The North Carolina constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate funds,” Moore said in November. “Any attempt to circumvent the legislature in this regard would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.” 

Attorney Matthew Tilley

Matthew Tilley, an attorney who represents Berger and Moore, told Robinson that $900 million of the $1.7 billion ordered by Lee was funded in the state’s budget. 

“Not all of the items that were listed in the proposed remedial plan were funded by the budget,” Tilley said. “In many cases, the budget goes beyond and implements a number of measures that were never anticipated by the comprehensive remedial plan.” 

He noted, for example, that the budget includes $100 million in recurring money to help low wealth districts recruit teachers. 

“That may be another alternative means for addressing the concern in the alleged violation and that may obviate the need for some of the other measures in the plan,” Tilley said.  

Communication breakdowns?      

Former state Rep. Craig Horn, a Republican from Union County who co-chaired the House Education Appropriations and the House Education K-12 Committees, claims the judiciary never met with lawmakers to discuss the case. And to his knowledge, nor did the executive branch meet with the judiciary and legislative branches of government to discuss the matter.

Former state Rep. Craig Horn

“We’re not approaching this in a manner that makes reasonable sense for a good solution, so we end up constantly suing each other, which makes no practical sense because that money, being paid for suits, is money that’s not going to help kids,” said Horn, now mayor of Weddington.  

Horn left office in 2020 to run for State Superintendent of Public Instruction. He lost in the GOP primary election to Catherine Truitt, who won the general election.  

Adding accountability measures and responsibility measures to the comprehensive remedial plan might make it more appealing to Republicans, Horn said. 

“Where are the accountability measures so that we know what we’re doing is working?” Horn asked. Whose responsibility is it and what are the accountability measures so that we know that it’s being done? Those are things Republicans want. Democrats tend to say, we need more money.” 

Armstrong said the State Board of Education and N.C. Department of Public Instruction are responsible for holding school districts accountable for student achievement. 

“The WestEd plan was developed by some of the top people in the country and this is the only time I’m aware of a comprehensive study being done,” Armstrong said. “Where is the expertise, the background, the work that went into what the legislature did? What was the basis for what the legislature did in the budget or any year’s budget?”

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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.