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Editorial: Fine ruling no windfall for schools

A judge’s ruling that the state owes North Carolina schools an additional $749 million in wrongly withheld administrative fines may sound like a back-to-class-windfall, but the long-awaited ruling comes with some caveats.
For one thing, Judge Howard Manning has no authority to set a deadline for payment; the legislature will determine the timetable as well as how to appropriate the funds. It’s uncertain when local districts like the Rowan-Salisbury School System will see any of these funds, or how much individual districts might receive. In fact, some school officials have worried that the ruling won’t result in any additional funds because the legislature will simply use the court-ordered payment to supplant regularly budgeted revenues.
The background: In 2005, the State Supreme Court ruled that state agencies had wrongly kept some civil fines ó including tax penalties, some vehicular fines and college parking fines ó that had been earmarked since 1996 to go into the Civil Fines and Forfeitures Fund, which would then distribute the money to the state’s school districts based on enrollment to help pay for technology needs. (This is separate from the county fines and forfeitures that are collected locally, primarily through the court system, and directed to the Rowan-Salisbury and Kannapolis school systems.) Manning’s Superior Court court order, handed down late last week, set the amount owed to schools, to be distributed to districts based on enrollment.
The original legislation stipulated that the proceeds from the fines and forfeitures should go exclusively for school technology needs, a restriction that has drawn objections from some school officials. With oil price increases inflating transportation and energy costs, there’s an argument that local districts should have the leeway to spend these funds as they see fit. But the primary concern should be getting them in the first place. The fine and forfeiture money shouldn’t be used to offset other shifts in education funding. Judge Manning might not be able to order legislators to pay up straightaway, but it would behoove them to assure the state’s school systems that these will truly be additional education funds ó and that they will be allocated and distributed in a timely fashion.

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