Leandro judge sets $677 million as outstanding NC education spending obligation

Cumberland County Superior Court Judge Jim Ammons (Image from Friends of Judge Jim Ammons for Superior Court Facebook page)

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  • Superior Court Judge James Ammons has ordered $677 million in additional state spending to address obligations related to the long-running Leandro case.
  • That figure matches state budget office calculations from December 2022. State legislative leaders had argued that Ammons should have reduced the figure to as little as $376 million.
  • Ammons did not order state officials to bypass the General Assembly and transfer the money out of the state treasury. The N.C. Supreme Court took that option off the table in March.

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running Leandro education funding case says the state must spend an additional $677 million to cover items in a court-endorsed plan. That number matches a figure Gov. Roy Cooper’s state budget office produced in December 2022.

A 12-page order Friday evening from Judge James Ammons rejected proposed revisions from state legislative leaders. Those revisions would have reduced the outstanding Leandro spending obligation to as little as $376 million.

Ammons’ order responded to a November 2022 directive from the N.C. Supreme Court. The high court had asked Ammons to determine how state budget changes signed into law in 2022 affected earlier Leandro rulings.

The November directive originally called on Ammons to order state executive branch officials to move money from the state treasury to meet the Leandro obligation. But the new N.C. Supreme Court, with its 5-2 Republican majority, took that option off the table in March. The high court will decide in the months ahead whether a trial judge can force officials to transfer money without authorization from the General Assembly.

Two different judges overseeing the Leandro case before Ammons had calculated the state’s outstanding education spending obligation as $1.75 billion in November 2021 and $785 million in April 2022. The smaller $677 million figure indicates that the last two signed state budgets have addressed more than $1 billion in Leandro-related items.

Ammons’ order specifically sets the Leandro spending obligation at $509,701,707 for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, $133.9 million for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and $34.2 million for the University of North Carolina System.

Those numbers match calculations first put forward by N.C. Justice Department lawyers last year, little more than one month after the state Supreme Court’s November directive. The Office of State Budget and Management, which works for Cooper, prepared the calculations.

Ammons specifically addressed five items that could have reduced his Leandro spending number by more than $48.4 million. Legislative leaders argued that spending on items such as new teacher support, district and regional support, and principal salaries should have been part of the state’s calculations. In each case, Ammons refused to accept legislators’ numbers.

The judge also took no action on lawmakers’ request that he address hundreds of millions of dollars that would fund the same programs twice, since both the original November 2021 order and the revised April 2022 order were designed to address two years of a multiyear Leandro spending plan.

“This court will not disturb … ‘diligent and precise’ calculations” made one year ago, Ammons wrote.

“[T]his Court retains jurisdiction of this case to ensure the implementation of this order
and to monitor continued constitutional compliance,” Ammons’ order concluded.

In a footnote, he added that “The trial court shall await guidance as to how to
proceed further.”

Now that Ammons has issued his order, action in the Leandro case is likely to shift back to the state Supreme Court. That court has issued major rulings in the case, officially known as Hoke County Board of Education v. State, in 1997, 2004, and 2022.

If Ammons’ calculation of the outstanding Leandro obligation stands, the high court’s major issue will be to decide whether a trial judge can bypass the General Assembly to address Leandro.

The November 2021 order, from Judge David Lee, would have forced the state budget director, controller, and treasurer to move $1.75 billion out of the state treasury. The money would have covered two years of otherwise unfunded items in the Leandro plan, officially called a comprehensive remedial plan.

The controller objected to the forced money transfer and secured a “writ of prohibition” from the N.C. Court of Appeals. That writ blocked the forced transfer piece of Lee’s order.

By April 2022, after Judge Michael Robinson replaced Lee in presiding over the case, the forced money transfer was not included in a revised order. Robinson called for $785 million in Leandro spending, once again focusing on two years of the court-endorsed plan.

The state Supreme Court’s November 2022 ruling would have permitted the forced money transfer. But that order arrived four days before voters replaced two Democratic justices on the N.C. Supreme Court with Republicans. The court shifted from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 majority favoring Republicans.

When the controller’s office raised continuing objections about the details of carrying out a forced money transfer, the new Supreme Court majority restored the “writ of prohibition” in March. No judge can bypass the General Assembly for Leandro spending until the Supreme Court issues a new ruling.

The high court has not indicated when it plans to address the controller’s objections.