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Judge in Leandro school funding case could order lawmakers to fund $1.7 billion improvement plan on Wednesday

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running school funding case could order the state to hand over $1.7 billion from the state’s rainy-day account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive education improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee could enforce the $1.7 billion plan recommended by plaintiffs in decades-old Leandro v. State of North Carolina during a court hearing Wednesday.

“To allow the State to indefinitely delay funding for a Leandro remedy when adequate revenues exist would effectively deny the existence of a constitutional right to a sound basic education and effectively render the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s Leandro decisions meaningless,” the order reads.

The state currently has a $6 billion budget surplus.

The Leandro case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children 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.

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The school improvement plan is based on that report.

WestEd’s recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources necessary to ensure that all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

Under the plan proposed by the plaintiffs, the state’s public schools would receive $1.5 billion, $190 million would go to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41 million to the UNC System.

The state’s Republican leadership has questioned whether Lee has the authority to issue an order forcing the state to fund the school improvement plan.

The judge will order the spending despite the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling as recently as 2020 that “the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,” Senate Leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham, said in a statement.

Berger referenced a report by WRAL-TV that found Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration paid most of the $2 million for the WestEd report. He contends the defendants and the plaintiffs in the case are political allies.

“They paid a group of consultants to recommend a spending plan favored by and funded by the Cooper Administration, and they found an unelected judge to order the spending over the objections of the legislature,” Berger said.

The state is without a budget as Lee considers the court order.

On Monday, State Superintendent Catherine urged lawmakers to quickly reach an agreement on a budget that includes funding to address challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I like to think there is widespread agreement that perfect cannot be the enemy of the good and while more can be done with more resources, $330 million dollars to address unfinished learning and issues stemming from COVID-19 school years is better than $0 dollars; a 3%, 5% or 10% raise for teachers is undoubtedly better than no raise; and roughly $80 million in funding to modernize school business platforms and provide cyber security to PSUs [school districts] across our state is much better than $0,” Truitt said.

The superintendent said “many crises” loom in K-12 education if a budget isn’t passed.

Licensure system and human resources management systems and other such contracts will soon expire and the burden of paying them could shift to school districts if a budget isn’t approved, Truitt said.

“While I understand that negotiations continue to play out, I want to make it clear that the Department of Public Instruction – and NC’s K-12 education system at large – is facing considerable obstacles while we wait in limbo.,” she said “If a budget is not signed, hardship will be experienced, yet again, across our state with severe implications for our students, our teachers, and our school support staff.”

She asked lawmakers to remove politics from the budget process.

“If both branches of government are unable to reach a compromise, my hope is that a budget can still be put forth for a vote,” Truitt said. “Should this vote come to fruition, I would hope that no pressure be applied to legislators in voting for or against it, as they should be allowed to represent their constituents rather than feel pressured to support a political party.”

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