Judge gives state lawmakers ‘one more last chance’ to fully fund the Leandro plan

Lawyers gather Wednesday, Sept. 8, to discuss the state’s long-running school funding case.

Superior Court Judge David Lee has given state lawmakers “one more last chance” to meet their constitutional obligation to provide students in North Carolina with a sound basic education before he takes action to force their hand.

Lee, the judge overseeing the state’s long-running Leandro school funding case, made his remarks Wednesday during a court hearing with lawyers for the defendants and plaintiffs.

He gave lawmakers until Oct. 15 to fully fund a school improvement plan that calls for $5.6 billion in new K-12 funding by 2028. An Oct. 18 hearing has been set to discuss the next steps if an agreement has not been reached to fully fund the plan.

“I am going to be prepared on Oct. 18 to hear any proposal that anyone might have in terms of how the court might exercise its remedial powers to remedy this constitutional deficiency,” Lee said.

The judge said it’s “disheartening” that the House and Senate budgets are “woefully short” of the money needed to meet the Leandro mandate.

The House’s budget is the more generous of the two, calling for $370 million in new money this year and $382 million next year. Meanwhile, the Senate’s budget calls for $192 million this year and $214 million next year.

Both are hundreds of millions of dollars short of the $691 million called for this year in the Leandro plan and the $1.06 billion needed next year.

“I’m giving the legislative and executive branches one more last chance before they say we’re through,” said Lee, partially rephrasing the words of a song by one of his favorite country singers, Vince Gill. “That’s not to threaten anybody. It’s to send a clear signal, clear as I know how; that come Oct. 18, if this hasn’t already been addressed as it should be addressed, as the court finds it needs to be addressed, [the court] will certainly be prepared to address it.”

The Leandro case began more than a quarter-century ago after five rural school districts in low-wealth counties sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise the tax revenue needed to provide students with a quality education.

In 1997, the state Supreme Court issued a ruling, later reconfirmed in 2004, in which it held that every child has a right to a “sound basic education” that includes competent and well-trained teachers and principals and equitable access to resources.

“We’re not just throwing money at something,” Lee said. “We’re asking that this state comply with the [state] constitution by adequately funding a very reasoned and intense effort to come up with what’s necessary to comply with our constitution.”

As Policy Watch reported in July, there are numerous examples in other states of examples in which courts have forced reluctant lawmakers to adequately fund K-12 education.

In 2015, for example, the Washington State Supreme Court held the state in contempt of court and fined it $100,000 a day after it failed to come up with a plan to adequately fund K-12 education, as required by a 2012 court order in McCleary v. Washington.

The fine came after threats of sanctions if lawmakers did not live up to what that state’s constitution calls a “paramount” duty to amply fund schools.

Lee said he’s aware of the actions taken in other states.

“I’ve read some of the things that have happened in Kansas, Washington state and some of the other states that have similar constitutional provisions, but I’m not prepared to shine a light on that this morning,” Lee said. “I will be prepared to shine a light on that on Oct. 18.”

Republican lawmakers have said that Lee doesn’t have the authority to force the state to fund the Leandro plan. They also contend the House and Senate budgets include elements of the plan.

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