North Carolina judge gets additional week to work on school funding order

Published 3:52 pm Wednesday, April 20, 2022

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By Gary D. Robertson, Associated Press

The North Carolina Supreme Court agreed Wednesday to give a judge another week to work through the latest step in a long-running legal fight over public education spending.

The court’s justices granted Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson a seven-day extension, which he had requested Tuesday while citing differences between the legal parties over details and numerous documents to review.

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Robinson was tasked last month with scrutinizing the November order of another judge who had directed that $1.75 billion be moved from state coffers to carry out two years of a remedial plan to address education inequities.

In particular, the Supreme Court told Robinson to review Judge David Lee’s order in light of the General Assembly’s passage of a state budget that funds some of the plan’s provisions.

Robinson originally had until Wednesday to report his findings to the justices, who afterward will hear appeals that likely would rule on whether the judicial branch has constitutional powers to order taxpayer-funded spending for education on its own. Republican legislative leaders say only the General Assembly can appropriate state money.

In his extension request, Robinson said he’s received a large number of written submissions from legal parties in the litigation such as school districts, parents and state officials, and held a lengthy in-person meeting last week.

The parties also don’t agree on how much money is in the new budget law that covers the remedial plan program and on how certain spending should be interpreted, he wrote.

The delay until April 27 was needed to “carefully consider the submissions and arguments of counsel” and “issue an appropriate order containing its findings and conclusions,” Robinson added.

The court granted the extension in an order that contained no additional comment. Soon after, Robinson scheduled an online hearing for Friday to ask questions about the disagreements over spending.

The state budget office within Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s administration calculated earlier this month that the two-year budget allocated $958 million that would coincide with portions of $1.75 billion that Lee said should be spent through mid-2023. But an analysis by the legislature’s Fiscal Research Division differed on which budget provisions align with the remedial plan and how spending should be counted. While Cooper favored full funding of the remedial plan, he still signed the legislature’s budget into law,

The litigation is referred to as “Leandro” for a plaintiff in the original 1994 lawsuit. Supreme Court decisions in 1997 and 2004 declared there was a constitutionally protected right to obtain the “opportunity for a sound basic education” and that the state had not lived up to that mandate, especially for students in poor regions.

Since then, judges have been appointed to monitor the case and efforts to address the inequities. The case picked up steam again in late 2019 when an outside consultant declared little progress had been made to comply with the rulings.

Lee ultimately backed a remedial plan that would spend at least $5.6 billion through 2028. But he did not order any spending until budget negotiations between the legislature and Cooper went well into the fall in 2021. A budget agreement was signed a week after his Nov. 10 order.

The remedial plan includes items such as funding improvements to help low-income students and those with disabilities. There’s also increased pay for educators and improvements to child access to prekindergarten.