School funding plaintiffs ask NC Supreme Court to weigh in

Published 8:41 pm Thursday, December 16, 2021

Associated Press

RALEIGH — Plaintiffs in long-running North Carolina school funding litigation have asked the state’s highest court to decide whether a trial judge’s directive to send $1.75 billion from government coffers to state agencies to address inequities is lawful.

Lawyers representing school districts and parents on behalf of their children filed two separate appeal notices dated Wednesday with the state Supreme Court.

They are unhappy with last month’s decision by a Court of Appeals panel that blocked Superior Court Judge David Lee’s order  to send the money from being enforced, and want the justices to get involved.

Lee is overseeing the litigation known as “Leandro,” named for one of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit filed in 1994.

The judge declared last month that he had authority to direct funds from the state treasury because elected officials had failed repeatedly to comply with previous Supreme Court rulings that declared the state constitution gives children the “opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”

The $1.75 billion would cover two years of a remedial spending plan. It was developed by an outside consultant with input from Gov. Roy Cooper’s office and the State Board of Education.

Republicans leading the General Assembly said Lee had no such power, since appropriating state funds rests solely with the legislature. A majority on a Court of Appeals panel, responding to a request for intervention by State Controller Linda Combs, agreed Nov. 30 that Lee overstepped his bounds and blocked the transfer.

The plaintiffs’ lawyers question whether the appeal panel’s quick ruling ran counter to rules of appellate procedure, as well as to the state constitution and Supreme Court opinions. Lee wrote last month that a portion of the constitution addressing the right to education in part gave him the authority to appropriate funds for education without a specific law of the General Assembly.

“The children of North Carolina have waited long enough for vindication of their constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education and deserve no less,” wrote Melanie Dubis, one of the plaintiffs’ lawyers, to the Supreme Court.

Last week, House Speaker Tim Moore and Senate leader Phil Berger asked to be allowed to formally intervene as defendants in the Leandro case. Lee’s order challenges the state budget that the General Assembly approved, as well as the legislature’s constitutional authority, the GOP leaders’ attorneys wrote.