School supporters want NC Supreme Court to fund Leandro plan
Public-education supporters urged the North Carolina Supreme Court on Saturday to order the transfer of $785 million from the state treasury to fund the Leandro education plan.
On Wednesday, the court will hear arguments over whether it should order the money transfer over the objections of Republican legislative leaders. Around 150 people who gathered at the Halifax Mall in front of the Legislative Building on Saturday said the high court needs to intervene after nearly 30 years of litigation.
Multiple speakers at Saturday’s rally pointed to the state’s $6 billion rainy day fund as a way to fund the plan. GOP leaders say they want to hold onto to the reserves to weather a potential recession.
“It is time to release the funds,” said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. “Our children need action now. We must not lose any more time — another generation of students — before we do what is right by them.”
Chants of “cut the check” and “let the money go” rang out from the crowd.
Long-running legal fight
The long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit was initially filed in 1994 by low-wealth school districts to get more state funding.
Over the years, the state Supreme Court has ruled that the state Constitution guarantees every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education” and that the state was failing to meet that obligation.
In November, Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to transfer $1.75 billion to fund the next two years of a plan developed by a consultant that’s designed to provide every student with a high-quality principal and teachers. A state Court of Appeals panel blocked the order from being enforced.
Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson replaced Lee as the trial judge and ruled in April that last year’s state budget left the Leandro plan $785 million short of being fully funded. But Robinson removed Lee’s wording requiring the state treasurer, controller and budget director to transfer funds.
Lawyers for the State Board of Education, the school district and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration want the Supreme Court to require the $785 million to be transferred.
Lawyers for Senate leader Phil Berger and House Speaker Tim Moore argue it would violate the state Constitution’s separation of powers for the courts to order the money transfer. They say that only the General Assembly has the power to appropriate state funds.
“Fourth grade is when you learn about North Carolina and North Carolina history, and I hope my daughter when she reaches fourth grade she gets to learn about this great state and how pivotal this month was in that Leandro was finally fully funded,” said Brittany Gregory, director of programs for Durham’s Partnership for Children. “That is my dream for her.”
‘You’re going to pay up’
The N.C. Supreme Court’s 4-3 Democratic majority has issued several rulings that have gone against GOP lawmakers.
Earlier this month, the high court ruled that the General Assembly was unconstitutionally gerrymandered to the extent that lawmakers may have lacked the authority to claim to represent the people when they passed new constitutional amendments in 2018, The News & Observer previously reported.
The ruling could prevent implementation of GOP-supported amendments such as requiring voters to show photo ID and banning future politicians from raising the state’s income tax rate above 7%.
The same 4-3 majority will hear the Leandro case after Republican Phil Berger Jr. and Democrat Anita Earls rejected requests to recuse themselves from the case.
Angus Thompson, who was one of the original plaintiffs in the case, said the courts have found for years that the students have been harmed. He compared the upcoming court hearing to what happens when people don’t pay their fines after being given multiple chances by a judge.
“Sooner or later you’re going to pay the fine and you’re going to pay up,” said Thompson, who was a public defender.
This story was originally published August 27, 2022 1:42 PM.