The Pulse

N.C. Supreme Court blocks transfers of Leandro money in partisan vote

By: - March 6, 2023 4:30 pm

Last week ended on a sour note for the plaintiffs in the state’s long running Leandro school funding lawsuit and their supporters.

On Friday, the N.C. Supreme Court’s Republican majority voted 5-2 to reinstate a lower court’s order blocking Superior Judge David Lee’s ruling in November in which he ordered the state to spend millions of dollars to implement the first two years of an eight-year school improvement plan.

The plan was developed by an outside consultant and backed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper and the State Board of Education.

“Disappointed is an understatement to hear about this decision by 5 on the State Supreme Court to willfully ignore the NC Constitution for our students have their right to funded public schools,” N.C. Association of Educators President Tamika Walker Kelly tweeted after the ruling was made public later Friday. “Prime example of why elections matter.”

A Democratically-controlled state Supreme Court voted 4-3 in November to back Lee’s order just days before the mid-term election. But Republicans picked up two seats in the election to give the GOP a 5-2 majority.

Lee was removed from the Leandro case last March after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 72. He died in October.

At the heart of Friday’s ruling is a fundamental disagreement between Democrats and Republicans about whether the state’s highest court has the authority to order the transfer of money from state coffers to pay for the school improvement plan. The plan is intended to ensure that all schools have high quality teachers and principals.

The state’s Republican leadership has long held that the court does not have the authority to order the legislature to pay for the plan.

“The people of North Carolina through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge, decide how to spend tax dollars,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in 2021. “Rather than accepting responsibility for lagging achievement and outright failure, the Leandro parties insist that the pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”

Former State Controller Linda Combs had appealed Lee’s order, contending that it would be illegal to transfer money without the General Assembly’s approval. Her successor Nels Roseland has also argued against the transfer of money without lawmakers’ approval.

Roseland argues that “it would be fundamentally unfair for a court to subject him, his staff, and the recipient agency staff to criminal and civil liability before the basic elements of procedural due process were met including notice, an opportunity to respond, counsel, and the right to an appeal including a hearing on these issues.”

Writing for the two Democrats, Associate Justice Anita Earls said the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure doesn’t allow for such maneuvering and “gamesmanship.”

Justice Anita Earls

The Controller cannot legitimately request a “do over” with a newly constituted Court in order to obtain a different result,” Earls wrote. “And even more importantly, this Court cannot legitimately allow such a procedure.The court majority reinstated the writ of prohibition until “this Court has an opportunity to address the remaining issues in his case.”

The Leandro case began 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 County in the lawsuit.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

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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.