Judge orders NC to use $1.7B to fund education plan

North Carolina news

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN/AP) – A judge ordered the state on Wednesday to transfer about $1.7 billion from its reserves to fund a plan aimed at improving education, as Republican legislative leaders decried the court case as a “circus.”

Superior Court Judge David Lee issued the order, which he stayed for 30 days, as part of the long-running Leandro school funding case.

“This court, for 17 years, has granted every reasonable deference to the legislature and executive branches of government,” Judge Lee said. “The court’s deference is at an end.”

The funding is meant to be utilized to implement the next two years of the so-called Leandro plan, which calls for at least $5.6 billion in new spending by 2028. That would fund various things, including additional pre-K slots, pay raises, and hiring more employees.

“This case is about children who are from high-poverty, low-performing districts and areas of our state that aren’t given a fair opportunity to get a sound, basic education. Unfortunately, from the numbers I have seen, the sheer number of those students has increased dramatically and continues to do so. So, in that sense, it’s a runaway train,” Lee said.

Courts previously found the state has not been meeting its constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education.”

Judge Lee previously had ordered state leaders to implement the spending plan. Gov. Roy Cooper (D) had called for fully funding it in his state budget proposal, while Republican legislative leaders proposed funding fraction of it.

Following the hearing, Gov. Cooper (D) said, “This is not a new or confusing concept: a bipartisan N.C. Supreme Court twice has ruled that the state is failing to guarantee the right to a sound, basic public education that’s enshrined in our state Constitution. Legislators can’t simply erase this right because they don’t like it. We have an effective, court-approved roadmap for making education better in North Carolina and it’s time to get it done.”

Sen. Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) and House Speaker Tim Moore (R-Cleveland) issued a statement as well Wednesday reiterating they do not believe the judge has the authority to order the transfer of funds and called the case a “circus.”

“This case has devolved into an attempt by politically allied lawyers and the Governor to enact the Governor’s preferred budget plan via court order, cutting out the legislature from its proper and constitutional role,” they said. “If Judge Lee’s orders are followed, the legislature’s core duty is usurped by an unelected county-level trial judge and an out-of-state consultancy funded by the Governor and his political allies.”

Berger previously called the judge “unhinged.” Moore suggested on Tuesday that if Lee issued this order that it “would amount to judicial misconduct and will be met with the strongest possible response.” It’s unclear what step he plans to take.

The state has about $8.5 billion in unreserved cash, according to the state controller’s office, which Democrats cited in arguing that North Carolina can afford to implement the plan.

“The reality remains that Republican leadership has thumbed its nose at the court and the judiciary,” said Sen. Jay Chaudhuri (D-Wake) ahead of the hearing. “Sen. Berger has said that Judge Lee is unhinged, but our state constitution hinges on an independent judiciary that has a duty to determine whether or not our executive or legislative branch runs afoul of the state constitution.”

The legislative leaders said they received a memo this week from retired Judge Howard Manning, who was the original judge in the Leandro case. The memo was first reported by Carolina Journal.

In it, he questions whether Judge Lee has the authority to issue the order.

“Leandro requires that the children, not the educational establishment, have the Constitutional right to the equal opportunity to obtain a sound, basic education,” Judge Manning writes.

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