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Debate Begins Over How To Pay For Low-Wealth Schools

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RALEIGH, N.C. — The state School Board is on the front lines of an issue that could change the face of education in North Carolina.

The legal matter known as the Leandro case took a turn this week with a letter from Judge Howard Manning, which said the state needs to provide more resources to Hoke County Schools. On Thursday, school board members discussed the decision for the first time.

"The board will go into closed session at the end of our meeting today for the purpose of considering and reviewing a legal matter," said Howard Lee, chairman of the state School Board.

"I think this gives us leverage with the General Assembly as we seek some of the funds the state board has requested this year," state Superintendent Mike Ward said. "We are in sync with the notion that we can do more in the poorest districts for the kids at the greatest risk if there are more resources."

The state board already requested $22 million in next year's budget to help low-wealth schools raise student achievement, but officials said more is needed if the board hopes to help every low-wealth school district. So far, 81 out of 117 school districts say they need more money -- money that will have to come from the General Assembly.

"Resources are going to have to be stretched thin. It is an issue we will be looking at carefully in the short session and the new session in January," education committee member Sen. Linda Garou said.

Lawmakers said they have already begun to address the issue with programs like the state's low-wealth fund. It puts about $99 million a year into low-performing schools in poor areas.

"I think we have, over the last few years, tried to do more to address the Leandro issue, not because there's a court case, but because it's the right thing to do," education committee member Sen. Walter Dalton said.

The legal wrangling in the complicated case is not over yet. The state Supreme Court still has to decide some key issues in the Leandro case. Gov. Mike Easley released a statement on the issue, saying while the courts work to define what a basic education is, North Carolina should simply stay focused on providing high quality education for everyone.

The Leandro lawsuit began in 1994. Five school districts were originally involved, but that number has grown to 11.


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