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N.C. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in latest Leandro case

opinion-protect-leandro-plan
DTH Photo Illustration. A student takes notes for a class. The Leandro Plan fights for the constitutional right of children in North Carolina to receive a sound basic education.

On Thursday, Feb. 22, the N.C. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the latest hearing of the long-running Leandro cases on public education funding. 

In 1997, the state supreme court ruled in Leandro I that every student has a constitutional right to a sound, basic education. Then, in 2004, the state supreme court decided in Hoke County Board of Education v. North Carolina — or Leandro II — that the state is responsible for staffing each classroom with a competent teacher, hiring a competent principal for every school and providing adequate resources to ensure an equitable learning environment.

Thursday's hearing was the fifth time the Hoke County case has been presented to the state supreme court.

After a court order in 2019, an independent consultant company WestEd recommended North Carolina spend $6.8 billion in total over the course of eight years. In 2020, Judge David Lee ordered the state to create a plan to improve the quality of public education. The state then submitted a Comprehensive Remedial Plan based on WestEd's recommendations.

When Lee ordered the legislature to report to the court on its implementation of the CRP and the legislature did not respond, Lee ordered the allocation of $1.7 billion from the state's general fund toward public education.

In 2022, the N.C. Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision to allocate about $1.7 billion from North Carolina's general funds to N.C. public schools — just three days before the court flipped to a 5-2 Republican majority in the 2022 elections. The new 5-2 majority decided last March along party lines to accept new filings in the case following a request from Republican state legislative leaders.

The court will decide in the coming months if the judicial branch has the constitutional right to order the legislative branch to appropriate money for the improvement plan, as well as if the trial court’s order to implement this plan extends beyond the five counties in the original case.

Matthew Tilley represented the appellants, N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Guilford, Rockingham) and N.C. House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland, Rutherford). The appellants argued the court does not have the authority to appropriate money, and the original ruling does not extend beyond the five counties originally named in the original Leandro cases.

“The fact that the state said, ‘Well, we want to solve this on a statewide basis,’ really doesn't confer jurisdiction on the court to order remedies in other counties,” Tilley said.

Justice Allison Riggs, one of the two Democrats on the court, asked if that distinction meant the court would never be able to order state appropriations to address public school funding, unless parents from every county filed separate lawsuits.

Tilley responded the state’s claim that students in Hoke County are being denied a sound, basic education is district-specific and thus a statewide remedy would be inappropriate.

Melanie Dubis, the lawyer representing the school districts, said there are over 100 classrooms in both Hoke County and Cleveland County — Moore's home county — that are not properly staffed, which is, on its face, a state violation of a sound, basic education. Dubis argued it is impractical to only remedy Hoke County, when there are other school districts with similar needs.

The lawsuit for Leandro I was filed 30 years ago, and there are no students from the original case still involved — a point that Republican justices Trey Allen and Richard Dietz focused on during the oral arguments.

“If there are no students left in the case, doesn’t that mean we have no parties left in the case that are entitled to relief?” Allen said.

Dubis said the school boards are proper parties in this case because they are significantly involved and affected by the outcome.

Dietz said it is awkward that the very school district who violated students' rights is now in court arguing that they get to decide what the right remedy can be.

“Who has the constitutional duty to provide the children the opportunity for a sound, basic education?” Dubis said. “Your honor, it is not my clients. It is not the school boards. It is the state of North Carolina.”

@torinewbyy

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com

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