Editor’s note: This story was updated at 5:20 p.m. with additional background.
The N.C. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in late August in the long-running Leandro school funding lawsuit. An order issued Wednesday spells out the schedule for the state’s highest court to address the latest Leandro disputes.
The order signed by Justice Sam “Jimmy” Ervin IV allows parties in the case to challenge a trial judge’s April 26 ruling. The trial court determined that state government owed $785 million to two state government agencies and the University of North Carolina System.
The money would cover two years of items in a court-ordered comprehensive remedial plan. San Francisco-based education consultants drafted the multiyear CRP, with an overall price tag of at least $5.6 billion, to resolve the Leandro case.
Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson did not dictate on April 26 how the money would flow from the state treasury to the government agencies. He specifically rejected the portion of an earlier Nov. 10, 2021, court order that addressed that issue. Robinson’s predecessor in overseeing the Leandro case, Judge David Lee, would have forced state government officials to transfer money out of the state treasury to cover CRP items.
Now advocates of increased education spending can challenge Robinson’s ruling against the forced money transfer.
Initial briefs in the case are due July 1, with final briefs due Aug. 12. “This case shall be scheduled for oral argument on a date to be determined during the week of 29 August 2022, with an opinion to be filed upon a date to be chosen in the Court’s discretion,” according to the order.
The Supreme Court’s latest order arrives six days after Leandro plaintiffs issued their latest appeal in the case.
Leandro, which is officially titled Hoke County Board of Education v. State, has produced two major state Supreme Court rulings in 1997 and 2004.
The state Supreme Court had agreed in March to hear the case again. But the state’s highest court put its latest review of the case on hold while seeking additional information from the trial court.
Lee’s Nov. 10 order had called for $1.75 billion in additional state education spending. Eight days later, Gov. Roy Cooper signed a bipartisan state budget bill. In March, the Supreme Court asked the trial court to review the budget’s impact on Lee’s spending order.
On the same day the full Supreme Court called for a new trial court review, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee with Robinson as the judge overseeing the case.
Robinson eventually ruled that the state budget covered nearly $1 billion of the items in Lee’s Nov. 10 order. While whittling down the size of Lee’s order, Robinson also struck down a key provision that proved controversial. Lee would have forced the Office of State Budget and Management, state controller, and state treasurer to move money from the state treasury without authorization from the legislature.
In striking that portion of Lee’s order, Robinson relied on a state Appeals Court ruling labeling Lee’s forced money transfer unconstitutional.
Plaintiffs in the case now appeal Robinson’s ruling. They ask the Supreme Court to determine: “Whether the trial court exceeded its jurisdiction on remand to the extent the Certified Order strikes the portion of Judge Lee’s 10 November 2021 Order directing the transfer of funds needed to address underfunding of years 2 and 3 of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan?”
A brief from the plaintiffs also asks the Supreme Court to decide “whether the trial court acted outside the limited scope of this Court’s instructions” by eliminating Lee’s forced money transfer.
The Supreme Court agreed in March to address the court-ordered money transfer, based on appeals linked to a complaint from State Controller Linda Combs. Combs had secured a rare “writ of prohibition” from the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges blocked Lee’s ruling. They ruled the trial judge had no authority to force Combs to move money out of the state treasury.
Legislative defendants also appealed Robinson’s ruling. Lawmakers argue that the bipartisan state budget completely mooted Lee’s Nov. 10 order. They say Robinson should have ordered no additional state spending on education.