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Leandro judge orders state to fund $1.7B school improvement plan

Attorneys in the Leandro school funding case wait for Judge David Lee to sign a court order.

The judge overseeing the state’s long-running school funding case on Wednesday ordered lawmakers to take $1.7 billion from North Carolina’s $6 billion or more savings account to pay for the next two years of a comprehensive public-school improvement plan.

Superior Court Judge David Lee said the state’s children can no longer wait to receive the sound basic education the state’s Constitution guarantees. The court, he said, has waited 17 years for the General Assembly to meet the constitutional mandate.

“The court’s deference is at an end at this point,” Lee said.

Judge David Lee

Lee’s order won’t go into effect for 30 days. The state’s Republican-led General Assembly contends Lee doesn’t have the authority to force lawmakers to spend money and will likely contest the order.

House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican from Cleveland County, called Lee a “rogue judge.”

“Special Superior Court Judge David Lee has signaled his intent to circumvent the authority of the General Assembly by ordering the transfer of funds outside the appropriations process,” Moore said in a press release. “Judge Lee’s actions would be a clear violation of the North Carolina constitution.”

Lee said the focus must remain on the state’s 1.5 million K-12 students.

“This case is not about the judge, it is not about the legislature, it is not about the attorneys; it’s about these children and what’s going to be necessary to achieve the Leandro-mandate education in this state,” Lee said.

He also said the state Constitution gives the courts the authority to act when other branches of government fail to meet their constitutional obligation.

That point was made earlier this week by State Attorney General Josh Stein who issued a Memorandum of Law on behalf of the state affirming the court’s authority to issue such an order.

“If there exists a conflict between legislation and the Constitution, it is acknowledged that the Court ‘must determine the rights and liabilities or duties of the litigants before it in accordance with the Constitution, because the Constitution is the superior rule of law in that situation,’ ” Stein wrote, citing Green v. Eure (1975).

Speaker Tim Moore

Moore was critical of Stein’s memorandum.

“The North Carolina Constitution gives the General Assembly the exclusive authority to appropriate funds,” he said. “Any attempt to circumvent the legislature in this regard would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.”

Judge Lee has been overseeing the state’s landmark school funding case – Leandro v. State of North Carolina – that 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.

Schnika Pender

Schnika Pender, an original plaintiff in the lawsuit, applauded Lee’s order.

“This is one change for North Carolina to properly fund education and give it the priority it deserves,” Pender said. “The children of North Carolina deserve this constitutional right. Our future depends on it.”

Lee hired WestEd, an independent consultant to develop recommendations to improve North Carolina’s public schools. The public school improvement plan before the court is largely based on WestEd’s report. The recommendations include staffing each classroom with a competent, well-trained teacher; staffing each school with a competent, well-trained principal and identifying the resources to ensure all children have an equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education, among others.

Lee said he doesn’t know of any other plan developed by lawmakers to address the constitutional mandate.

He noted that the state has the financial wherewithal to easily pay for the next two years of the Leandro Comprehensive Remedial Plan submitted to the court in March and signed by Lee in June.

Many of the recommendations in the comprehensive plan target children at risk of academic failure, Lee said.

“This case is about children who are from high poverty, low-performing districts in the area of our state who aren’t given a fair opportunity to get a sound basic education,” Lee said. “Unfortunately, from the numbers that I have seen, the sheer numbers of those students has increased dramatically and continues to do so. So, in that sense, it’s a runaway train.”

Mary Ann Wolf, President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of NC, said Lee’s “historic” order provides critical investments for students and schools that will ultimately flow to communities and our economy.

“This includes research-based investments in human resources, greater access to educational opportunities, and improvements to the accountability and finance systems that impact education every day,” Wolf said.  “The people of North Carolina made a commitment to a sound basic education for each student by way of our state’s constitution, and these investments ensure that our schools and our students have what they need to reach their potential.”

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