NC Court of Appeals rules judge can’t force legislature to meet state’s obligation for $1.7B school improvement plan
Published December 2, 2021
The plaintiffs in the state’s long-running school funding case were dealt a setback Tuesday when the NC Court of Appeals ruled the judge overseeing the case doesn’t have the authority to require the state to spend $1.7 billion on a public-school improvement plan.
Superior Court Judge David Lee had ordered State Treasurer Dale Folwell, a Republican, State Controller Linda Combs and state Budget Director Charles Perusse to release state money to fund the first two years of a state-wide school improvement plan that grew out of the decades old Leandro v. State of North Carolina. The State Supreme Court ruled in that case that the state was not meeting its constitutional obligation to provide children with sound basic education.
Tuesday’s Appeals Court ruling came on a 2-1 vote with Republican judges Chris Dillon and Jefferson Griffin agreeing that the state Constitution “permits” but does not require the General Assembly to “supplement” existing sources of school funding. Combs had asked the Court to dismiss the order.
Furthermore, the judges said Lee’s order is “constitutionally impermissible and beyond the power of the trial court.”
“We note that our Supreme Court has long held that, while our judicial branch has the authority to enter a money judgment against the State or another branch, it had no authority to order the appropriation of monies to satisfy any execution of that judgment,” the judges said.
Judge John Arrowood, a Democrat, wrote the dissent, arguing that a temporary stay of Lee’s order was appropriate because the Court was not under any “real time pressure.”
The plaintiffs were given one day to respond, following a holiday weekend [Thanksgiving] to respond to Combs’ request to dismiss Lee’s order, Arrowood said. That violates the Rules of Appellate Procedure that allow “parties to fully and fairly present their arguments to the Court,” he said.
“My concerns are exacerbated in this case by the fact that no adverse actions would occur to the petitioner during the regular response time as the trial court had already stayed its own order until several days after responses were due,” Arrowood said.
State Republican leaders applauded the court’s decision, and then took aim at state educators.
“The people of North Carolina through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge, decide how to spend tax dollars,” Senate leader Phil Berger said in a statement. “Rather than accepting responsibility for lagging achievement and outright failure, the Leandro parties insist that the pathway to student improvement is always the simple application of more money.”
Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the NC Association of Educators, responded to the Court’s ruling on Twitter.
“I’ve never ever, in my whole life, seen people work so hard to DENY children the resources they need to be successful,” Kelly said.
The state’s landmark school funding case was brought by five school districts in low-wealth counties that argued their districts did not have enough money to provide children with a quality education. The rural school systems did not have tax bases large enough to fund schools at the same level as wealthier urban districts.
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 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.
The state budget funds 53% of the school improvement plan this school year but falls to 43% next year, according to Kris Nordstrom, a senior policy analyst in the North Carolina Justice Center’s Education & Law project.
Policy Watch is also a project of the Justice Center.