Following hearing, decision in 28-year-old school funding case expected next week

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Published: Apr. 13, 2022 at 7:56 PM EDT
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RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – An education funding case that started nearly 28 years ago was back in court Wednesday, as a new judge took a look at a decision last fall to order the state to put more than $1 billion toward a plan aimed at improving schools.

The North Carolina Supreme Court is expected to take up the case later this year. But first, the court has asked a judge in Wake County to look at the order from last fall and whether the new state budget means that order needs to be amended.

The Leandro school funding plan gets its name from one of the original plaintiffs in the case when it was first filed in the 90s.

State officials say of the $1.7 billion that Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered to be used to fund two years of that plan, the recently enacted state budget provides funding for about $958 million of that.

Supporters of the Leandro plan point out the state has recently had a surplus that also led Republican leaders of the General Assembly to cut taxes and increase the state’s rainy-day fund.

“If the money is sitting in the savings account, Uncle Sam is not going to let me get away with saying I don’t have money in the checking account to pay my taxes,” said attorney Melanie Dubis, who is representing plaintiffs in the case.

After months of negotiations, Gov. Roy Cooper (D) signed the two-year budget into law in November despite raising concerns that it did not fully fund the Leandro plan.

Republicans in the state legislature have said they think the order mandating the spending on the plan is unconstitutional.

“The question here is not a difference of those who want to fund education and those who don’t. It’s between people who have legitimate and genuine disagreements about how to use the state’s resources,” said attorney Matthew Tilley.

Last month, Republican state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby suddenly removed Judge Lee from the case and replaced him with Judge Michael Robinson, who presided over Wednesday’s hearing.

Newby did not provide an explanation for the decision but faced criticism from Democrats who accused him of making the change for political reasons.

At the time of the switch, the Supreme Court also gave Robinson 30 days to determine whether any changes to last fall’s order are needed in light of the budget that passed.

Tilley argued Judge Robinson could consider the order moot.

But, attorney Amar Majmundar with the state Department of Justice, said that goes beyond what the Supreme Court has asked.

“There is money available. There is a shortfall in the plan. We are currently in defiance of that plan,” he said.

After hearing from the various attorneys in the case Wednesday morning, Judge Robinson raised concerns that he still had insufficient information to make a ruling within the next week, as the Supreme Court has requested.

His decision could impact what the Supreme Court ultimately considers. The state’s highest court is majority Democratic.

“These are really big numbers and nobody has explained to me, and Judge Lee’s order does not explain, how he came to the figures he came to,” Judge Robinson said. “I’ve got seven days from today to enter an order, and I do not have sufficient evidence before me upon which to make a ruling in the nature that you have requested the court make a ruling.”

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