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School districts sue state for alleged misallocated $46.4 million

More than 30 school districts filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the state of North Carolina for $46.4 million that was allocated to the court system instead of the schools.

According to the lawsuit, the state owes fees from $50 surcharges imposed on drivers who were convicted of having improper equipment since 2011.

The legislature changed the law in 2011 to have the $50 charge go toward the state court system instead of the school system. But North Carolina's Constitution states that all fines must be directed to maintaining the public school system.

“It is interesting to me that in the doing of this nobody really went back and thought, ‘Wait, the Constitution is really explicit about these types of funds going to schools,'” said Eric Houck, an associate professor in the UNC School of Education. 

Emili Hall, a senior biology major who is pursuing a high school teaching license through the UNC-BEST program, said she would love the money to return to education, specifically teacher salaries. 

“I would argue that the $46.2 million collected from improper equipment would be more beneficial in the school systems rather than the state court system," she said. 

Hall said the number of students in North Carolina has increased by approximately 50,000 since 2008, yet funding has decreased by almost $100 million. Teachers’ salaries have also decreased by $17.4 percent, she said, which is the biggest decrease in the nation. 

“Our students are the future of N.C. and our teachers are dedicated to providing them with the best education possible,” she said. "It would be such an accomplishment if the state legislators prioritized their students and teachers by providing them with the financial support they need.”

Houck said the N.C. school budget may look like it's increasing, but money allocated per pupil shows the state is underfunding each year.

“Schools are dealing with increased enrollment and funding that has not kept up,” said Erin Thomas Horne, assistant professor in the College of Education at N.C. State University. “The extra funds could go a long way in supporting students and teachers.”

Matt Ellinwood, education policy analyst at the N.C. Justice Center, said a lot of things get overlooked during the budgeting process. He said the bill is 343 pages with hundreds or thousands of topics passed at once. 

“Losing any kind of funding, regardless of how much, will have an impact on the classroom because there is nowhere else to cut,” Ellinwood said.

He said North Carolina spent $68 on textbooks per student in 2008, while in the 2014-15 school year only $15 dollars was spent. 

“This amount would bring us pretty close to closing that gap, it is a significant amount,” Ellinwood said.

Houck said around $8 billion is spent on K-12 education in North Carolina, and $46.2 million relative to $8 billion is not a lot. 

“It’s funny because it’s a large amount of money from one perspective and from another perspective it’s not a lot of money at all,” he said.

He said he thinks the money should still go to the school system. 

“Firstly, legally it should have, and secondly, when schools are receiving such dramatic cuts, they need every source of funding they can get,” Houck said.

Ellinwood said the constitutionality of the issue is pretty clear. 

“So I can see why districts are concerned and why they want to be involved,” he said. “Something’s up and something real is happening here.”

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