Ask Us: What is the Leandro case?

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 22, 2022

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to askus@salisburypost.com.

SALISBURY — A reader asked the Post what the Leandro case is and how it affects local schools.

In 1994, a consortium of plaintiffs made up of families and five poor school districts filed the lawsuit Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The case is a landmark education suit and closing in on 30 years after it was filed, it still has not been settled.

The suit alleges the plaintiff school districts are unable to provide a sound, basic education guaranteed for all students in the state with their current levels of funding.

Over the years, the state Supreme Court has affirmed, twice, the state is constitutionally obligated to provide the resources and access for that education, but that has not translated into the state legislature following steps of an action plan or handing over more money to public schools so they can meet their constitutional obligations.

The state legislature has continually fought with the courts over providing additional funding outlined in a plan to address the issues found in the Leandro proceedings. State Republican leaders have pushed back on the idea the courts can order the state to turn over funding for budget items.

In 2021, N.C. Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered the state to hand over $1.7 billion in funding as a starting point to fulfill the recommendations of an action plan created for the state by an education consulting firm. The N.C. court of appeals blocked the order, agreeing the money was needed but denying that Lee has the power to force the state to make appropriations in its budget.

The state is replete with cash. It has billions on hand it has collected by running a tax surplus for years. In August, the Associated Press reported the state was anticipating to collect 24% more than the revenue it collected in the previous year, translating to more than $2 billion in additional revenue. The state also collected hundreds of millions in unused funding returned by state agencies.

The state is expected to collect billions in additional surplus during the next few years.

How does this affect Rowan-Salisbury Schools?

In 2019, education consultant WestEd produced an action plan on Leandro.

Among the findings in the report show that the state’s per-pupil spending had declined about 6% from 2009 to 2017, and there is a long list of factors that affect how much funding a districts need and, broadly, they are underfunded.

The easiest parts of Lee’s order to understand is the money would pay for percentage increases to faculty salaries and funding to add more staff. Districts also have problems with how they are funded.

The report also includes findings on how funding works, notably that the state’s system of local and state hybrid funding and the distribution of funding is not equitable.

The report summarizes the problems with the funding model like this:

“Across the three study components, the statewide distribution of funding was found to be inequitable in two key ways: (1) school districts lack the funding necessary to meet the educational needs of historically underserved student populations, and (2) funding across districts is inequitable due to differences in local funding, differences in state funding received through the Classroom Teacher allotment, and differences in regional costs.”

North Carolina is one of a handful of states which do not give schools districts the ability to levy their own taxes.

The report claims there is a statistically significant correlation between wealth based on property tax and the amount of funding received by the state per student. Local wealth has an impact on funding as well. Wealthy county governments are able to provide more funding for schools per-student.

The 2019 report compares Jackson County Public Schools, a district with more than half of its students eligible for free lunch, and Asheville City Schools, with less than 40% of its students eligible for free lunch.

At the time, Jackson County had a total of $9,991 funding per-student while Asheville had $12,790. Most of the difference in funding came from local money.

In RSS, more than 60% of students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.

In North Carolina, school districts are almost completely dependent on county governments for capital funding to pay for projects like renovations and new schools.

For RSS specifically, the district has been consolidating elementary schools for the past few years an an effort to save money and fill empty seats. The district closed Faith and Enochville elementary schools in June.

The Rowan-County Board of Commissioners also froze $55 million in capital funding in 2020 the district planned to use to build a new K-8 school between the existing Knox Middle School and Overton Elementary School facilities. The county cited concerns about economic uncertainty due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Funding was unfrozen in 2021.

The county and the district have fought over funding in the past. In 2013, the schools and the county entered mediation over budget issues. In 2021, the county cut $500,000 from its current expenses appropriation for the schools while costs for salaries and benefits increased.

RSS Superintendent Tony Watlington told the Post this when asked what he thinks the Leandro case in December:

“I think given the state constitution guarantees all North Carolinians a right to a sound basic education, and with the state having an $8 billion surplus, I feel very comfortable as a fiscal conservative saying that I support the Leandro work as a school superintendent and I think we ought to fund it accordingly. But, when we get those dollars, those of us in school districts have an ethical and economic responsibility to be very good stewards of the public tax dollars. I don’t believe in just giving us money to waste or to spend on stuff that doesn’t work and just be a blank, open checkbook. I think we should have a high level of accountability for improving student outcomes with those dollars.”

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About Carl Blankenship

Carl Blankenship has covered education for the Post since December 2019. Before coming to Salisbury he was a staff writer for The Avery Journal-Times in Newland and graduated from Appalachian State University in 2017, where he was editor of The Appalachian.

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