Lawyers from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s Justice Department urge the N.C. Supreme Court to uphold an order forcing state government to fund $785 million for education-related expenses.
State lawyers make that request in their latest filing in the long-running Leandro school funding dispute. Legislative leaders and the state controller have challenged the order. It would force state officials to transfer money out of the state treasury without authorization from the General Assembly.
“In this extraordinary situation, where the State has failed for so long to adequately comply with a core constitutional obligation despite so many opportunities to cure that failure, the extraordinary measures adopted by the court below were appropriate and necessary,” according to a brief from N.C. Senior Deputy Attorney General Amar Majmundar.
A Nov. 10, 2021, order from Judge David Lee called for the forced transfer of $1.75 billion from the state treasury to two state departments and the University of North Carolina System. The money would address the second and third years of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.
That’s the official name of a multiyear, multibillion-dollar plan developed by San Francisco-based consultants. With support from plaintiffs and state government lawyers representing the State Board of Education, the plan is designed to resolve the Leandro school funding dispute that started in 1994.
A challenge from now-retired State Controller Linda Combs kicked Lee’s order back to the state Supreme Court, which has issued major Leandro rulings in both 1997 and 2004. Combs had challenged a court’s ability to force her to move money without an act of the General Assembly.
Before addressing the case again, the state’s highest court asked the trial judge to reconsider the $1.75 billion order in light of a state budget signed into law on Nov. 18. The budget became law eight days after the judge’s action.
Lee’s replacement, Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson, whittled the $1.75 billion figure down to $785 million. Robinson also struck the portion of Lee’s order forcing the money transfer. Robinson’s April 26 order offered no instruction about how the money would reach the state agencies and the university.
Leandro plaintiffs have urged the Supreme Court to overrule Robinson and reinstate the forced money transfer. Majmundar’s brief calls for the same outcome.
“Following two decades of deference to the legislative and executive branches to develop a remedy for an ongoing violation of the State’s constitutional duty to provide all students a sound basic education, was the trial court correct to order the relevant state actors to take measures to ensure compliance with our State’s Constitution, including ordering them to use available state funds in that effort?” the state asked in is brief.
“If the Supreme Court determines that the [Lee] trial court’s order of 10 November 2021 was in error, what specific remedies are appropriate to ensure compliance with the State’s constitutional duty to provide all children the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education?” Majmundar’s brief asked.
“The primary question before this Court now is whether, after more than 17 years of the State’s failing to meet its obligation (including periods of legislative control by both parties), we have finally arrived at the point where the judicial measures this Court forecast in 1997 and 2004 are needed to fulfill ‘the duty of the State,’” the state brief asserted. “The trial court concluded that we are at that point, and therefore ordered a detailed equitable remedy — the Comprehensive Remedial Plan.”
“The trial court, finding that the State was holding in reserve more than sufficient unappropriated money to fund the Plan through its third year, ordered the appropriate state actors to make the necessary monetary transfers to carry out the Plan,” Majmundar wrote. “In doing so, the trial court did no more than this Court previewed might be necessary in its unanimous 1997 and 2004 decisions in this case: It provided relief by imposing a specific remedy and instructed the relevant state actors to implement it.”
in addition to the state Justice Department and Leandro plaintiffs, a separate set of intervening plaintiffs also filed a brief dated July 1. That group also urges the state Supreme Court to strike the portion of Robinson’s order cutting out the forced money transfer.
“Since [the court’s 2004 Leandro decision], eighteen classes have been deprived of their constitutional right to a sound basic education, despite this Court’s shot across the bow to the State proclaiming, ‘We cannot similarly imperil even one more class,’” according to the brief. “Without the inclusion of the transfer provisions in the November 2021 Order, it is almost certain that the General Assembly will continue to abdicate its constitutional duties and more classes of children will pass through schoolhouse doors denied a sound basic education.”
State legislative leaders also filed a competing brief dated July 1 and posted Tuesday morning. Carolina Journal will detail legislators’ arguments in a follow-up story.