Written by GARY D. ROBERTSON
A North Carolina judge on Tuesday slashed the amount of money needed to comply through the middle of next year with a step-by-step plan to address education inequities in the state. But he refused to leave in place the bulk of another judge’s order that ordered money from government coffers to be sent to state agencies to cover a budget shortfall.
Special Superior Court Judge Mike Robinson ruled in a long-running dispute over public education spending that he began presiding over last month. Judge David Lee had ordered in November that $1.75 billion be transferred from state coffers to three government agencies to complete two years of an eight-year, $5.6 billion recovery plan that he had also approved last June.
Robinson wrote that the provisions of a two-year state budget – approved by the General Assembly and signed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper a week after Lee’s order – reduced the amount now needed to carry out the plan through June 2023 at $785 million. But because a state Court of Appeals panel had already blocked the portion of Lee’s order ordering the transfer because it said only lawmakers could appropriate money, Robinson said that he was compelled to delete this directive from his amended order.
“As a result, this court cannot and should not consider the legal issue of the trial court’s authority to order state officials to transfer funds from the state treasury to fund” the recovery plan, Robinson wrote.
This part of the ruling is a setback for school districts and parents of students who are plaintiffs in a decades-long dispute over school funding. They say the state continues to fail in its constitutional obligations to help at-risk children and those in impoverished counties.
Yet, wrote Robinson, Lee’s order should be amended to state that the state has not fully funded these two years of the recovery plan that Lee has supported, and that additional money is “deemed to be due.” to three state agencies.
The Supreme Court had ordered Robinson to review Lee’s order in light of the budget law and report back by April 20. The judge asked for and was granted an extra week, saying he needed more time to resolve disagreements among state officials over how much money the new appropriations bill has covered for the plan’s programs. recovery.
Landmark Supreme Court decisions in 1997 and 2004 declared that there was a constitutionally protected right to obtain “the opportunity for a solid basic education” and that the state had failed to fulfill this mandate, especially for children in poor areas.
With Robinson’s decision, the case now goes to the state Supreme Court, which could decide how far the judiciary can go to ensure schoolchildren have the opportunity to succeed when it determines that the powers legislative and executive have not fulfilled their functions. No date for oral arguments has been announced.
Lee said last year that the turnaround plan — based on an outside consultant’s report and input from Cooper and the State Board of Education — could satisfy rulings in the “Leandro” litigation, named after a plaintiff. when the lawsuit was filed in 1994.
Lee wrote that other parts of the constitution dealing with access to education gave him the right to spend directly.
Lawyers for the Republican legislative leaders – who were only recently added as official parties in the case – had argued before Robinson that Lee’s order directing the transfer of state coffers should have been completely overturned . But attorneys representing school districts, parents and state officials said Robinson’s job was not to determine whether to reject Lee’s order, but whether to adjust it to in the light of budgetary provisions.
Robinson wrote on Tuesday that it appeared there would be enough unsuitable money — more than $4 billion — in the state’s general fund to make a transfer as Lee ordered to cover the $785 million. . This unspent balance would sit in a savings reserve that lawmakers say cannot be spent without legislative approval.
Chief Justice Paul Newby appointed Robinson to review Lee’s order in light of the budget law the same day the Supreme Court agreed to expedite appeals of the order. In January, Lee had reached the mandatory retirement age for judges at 72. Newby, however, had the authority to allow Lee to remain on the bench and perform the review. Lee had been monitoring the case since late 2016.
Photo via City of Chapel Hill.