New Leandro judge sets hearing to determine what’s owed state’s school children

Angus Thompson speaks during Every Child NC rally. (Photo: Greg Childress)

The judge overseeing the long running Leandro school funding lawsuit has given attorneys in the case until March 15 to file briefs on proposed funding amounts before deciding next steps in the case.

Superior Court Judge James Ammons of Cumberland County was appointed to the nearly three-decades old case by Chief Justice Paul Newby in December. A hearing has been scheduled for March 17 to discuss how much money must be transferred to pay for year three of a comprehensive school improvement plan.

At Friday’s hearing, Ammons mostly steered away from matters involving the case that are before other courts. The main issues before his court, he said, are the amount of money due schools, the transfer of that money and possible interventions.

“I have no preconceived opinions, no agenda other than to follow the mandates of the appellate bench, give all parties a fair opportunity to be heard and do my best to render appropriate rulings based on the law and the evidence before me,” Ammons said.

The judge asked attorneys for the plaintiff and defendants to calculate dollar amounts they believe are required to fund the third year of a school improvement plan that was approved by a previous trial judge.

Scott Bazyle, an attorney representing the Hoke County plaintiffs in the Leandro lawsuit, placed the amount at $677.8 million. More than $500 million would go to the N.C. Department of Public Instruction and the rest to N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and the UNC System, Bazyle said.

Matthew Tilley, a lawyer for state Senate leader Phil Berger, a Republican from Rockingham and House Speaker Tim Moore, a Cleveland County Republican, disputed that amount, and asked for more time to come up with an appropriate number.

As Policy Watch previously reported, the N.C. Supreme Court’s Republican majority voted 5-2 last week to reinstate a lower court’s order blocking Superior Judge David Lee’s ruling in November in which he ordered the state to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to implement the first two years of an eight-year school improvement plan.

Former State Controller Linda Combs had appealed Lee’s order, contending that it would be illegal to transfer money without the General Assembly’s approval. Her successor Nels Roseland has also argued against the transfer of money without lawmakers’ approval.

Roseland argues that “it would be fundamentally unfair for a court to subject him, his staff, and the recipient agency staff to criminal and civil liability before the basic elements of procedural due process were met including notice, an opportunity to respond, counsel, and the right to an appeal including a hearing on these issues.”

Writing for the two Democrats, Associate Justice Anita Earls said the North Carolina Rules of Appellate Procedure don’t allow for such maneuvering and “gamesmanship.

The controller cannot legitimately request a “do over with a newly constituted Court in order to obtain a different result,” Earls wrote. “And even more importantly, this Court cannot legitimately allow such procedure. The court majority reinstated the writ of prohibition until “this Court has an opportunity to address the remaining issues in his case.

The nonprofit advocacy group Every Child NC held a press conference Friday prior to the court session to urge Ammons to order the transfer of money to pay for the school improvement plan.

“We know that when we stand up for our community, everyone benefits,” said Letha Muhammad, co-director of Education Justice Alliance.

Angus Thompson, an original Leandro plaintiff, said he’s disappointed that the case hasn’t been resolved, but optimistic that children will get the funding they deserve.

“The court has ordered it,” Thompson said. “There are three branches of government embodied in our constitution. There’s a fourth branch and that is we the people. We the people are going to make sure we get this remedial plan funded.”

Every Child NC is a community-led, statewide coalition of organization, parents, students and teachers that advocates for every child’s constitutional right to a sound, basic education.

The Leandro case began nearly three decades ago when school districts in five low-wealth counties sued the state, claiming that children were not receiving the same level of educational opportunities as students in wealthier counties. School districts in Cumberland, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance counties joined Halifax County in the lawsuit.

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.

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New Leandro judge sets hearing to determine what’s owed state’s school children