State budget falls well short of Leandro order

Posted November 22, 2021 5:26 p.m. EST
Updated November 22, 2021 7:28 p.m. EST

— Despite historic levels of state and federal spending in the new budget enacted last week, state leaders have still fallen short of the spending needed to fulfill the remedial plan ordered by the judge in the long-running Leandro court case.

The Leandro lawsuit, first filed in 1994 by families in five low-wealth counties and those counties’ school boards against the state, alleges that schools weren’t sufficiently funded. Two North Carolina Supreme Court rulings favored the plaintiffs. The second ruling in favor came in 2004, when the court ordered the state to remedy its shortcomings, while giving sufficient deference to the General Assembly to do so.

On Nov. 10, Judge David Lee ordered the state to turn over $1.7 billion in surplus funds to three state agencies tasked with carrying out the remedial plan. Lee stayed that order for 30 days to allow lawmakers to take action on their own that would make his order unnecessary.

However, even with a state surplus of around $8 billion, more than four times the sum needed, lawmakers still didn't meet the target. Senate Republican leaders say their Leandro-related spending in the budget was $933 million over the biennium, well short of the $1.7 billion ordered.

An analysis by the nonpartisan Public School Forum agrees that this year’s budget funds only about half of the needs outlined in the Leandro plan.

Forum director Dr. Mary Ann Wolf said the budget does spend more on teacher supplements, school psychologists and other support personnel. But overall, she said, it’s a missed opportunity.

"We're getting there, but certainly not enough. And we need to acknowledge that these this is the beginning of an eight year plan. And so if we start out this far behind, when we have a surplus, we're certainly concerned about what comes next."

Wolf is specifically worried about equally historic tax cuts in the new budget. They'll mean less revenue available over the next few years as the remedial plan is implemented and more funding is required.

"Our worry is that when it comes time to continue to need to increase those and sustain and make sure those are recurring investments, we're worried there won't be the funding there," she said.

It’s unclear what Judge Lee will decide to do about the order, set to take effect Dec. 10.

Attorney David Hinojosa represents the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP, a plaintiff-intervenor in Leandro. He says the judge could order the state to release the balance of the $1.7 billion that doesn't appear in the budget plan.

If the state doesn’t comply, Hinojosa hopes Lee will take further action.

"The comprehensive remedial plan is not a pie-in-the-sky plan," Hinojosa told WRAL News. "It's not everything that children actually need, but it is a very comprehensive set of actions that need to be taken."

"These are actions that needed to be done yesterday, and they're still not being done today. And we can't wait till tomorrow," he added.

Legislators left nearly $2.5 billion unspent in the new budget, so money is still available to fulfill the original order.

Senate Leader Phil Berger's spokesman Pat Ryan says most of the unspent balance would be spent in the second year of the biennial budget. However, legislators do routinely adjust their spending in the second year of the budget cycle.

GOP leaders say the judge can’t order them to spend money, and they say the plan is too expensive.

Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, said in a statement that legislators have chosen instead to invest in school choice.

"Judge Lee wishes to steal $1.7 billion from the state treasury to shower yet more money on an education bureaucracy that’s been demanding more and more money for decades without results to show for it," Ballard said. "The future of education in this state will be decided by parents through their elected legislators, not an unelected county-level trial judge."

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