Leandro judge’s latest order confirms focus on money issue

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

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  • New Leandro Judge James Ammons has confirmed his next hearing Friday will focus solely on the state's outstanding education funding obligations.
  • State officials have estimated the state has not yet addressed $677 million in Leandro-related expenses.

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running Leandro education funding case has confirmed that his next hearing will address one specific issue. The hearing Friday will focus on the amount of money necessary to meet the state’s current Leandro obligations.

An order Monday from Superior Court Judge James Ammons officially set a 10 a.m. Friday hearing in Raleigh.

The hearing will deal with “the following issue on remand from the Supreme Court:
‘On remand, we narrowly direct the trial court to recalculate the appropriate distributions in light of the State’s 2022 Budget,’” Ammons wrote.

The judge referenced a November ruling from the state Supreme Court. At that time, the high court called for the Leandro trial judge to decide how much funding from a November 2021 court order had yet to be covered by the latest state budget bill.

It will be the second recalculation of Leandro obligations in less than a year.

In November 2021, Judge David Lee called for the state to spend an additional $1.75 billion to fund two years of a multiyear Leandro plan, known formally as the comprehensive remedial plan.

Eight days after Lee’s order, the governor signed a state budget that addressed many items in Lee’s funding order. An April 2022 calculation from Lee’s successor, Judge Michael Robinson, whittled the state’s Leandro obligation down to $785 million.

Cooper signed another budget document after Robinson’s recalculation. Taking the latest budget law into account, state officials now estimate the current Leandro obligation at $677 million.

In addition to the total figure, the state estimated how much money would head specifically to the state Department of Public Instruction, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the University of North Carolina System.

By the time state officials submitted their latest figures, Robinson had asked Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby to name a new Leandro judge. Newby then appointed Ammons, who is senior resident Superior Court judge in Cumberland County.

Last Friday marked Ammons’ first opportunity to address Leandro parties in a status conference.

He has ordered Leandro parties to submit “briefing and/or affidavit evidence” regarding Leandro funding obligations by noon Wednesday.

As Ammons proceeds with his work, the state Supreme Court has added a new wrinkle to the case.

Last November’s order came from a Supreme Court split 4-3 along party lines. Democratic justices outvoted their Republican colleagues in upholding the basic elements of Lee’s November 2021 order.

Four days after that decision, voters replaced two Democratic Supreme Court justices with Republicans.

Now with a 5-2 Republican majority, the new Supreme Court issued a March 3 order reinstating a lower court’s “writ of prohibition.” That writ blocked a key piece of Lee’s original November 2021 ruling.

The writ said nothing about the money issue Ammons is addressing this week. But with the writ in place, the presiding Leandro judge cannot compel state government officials to transfer money from the state treasury without consent from the General Assembly.

The state Supreme Court indicated that it would “address the remaining issues in the case” at some future date. Those issues include whether a trial judge will be able to force state officials to move money to meet court-endorsed education obligations.

The high court accepted State Controller Nels Roseland’s argument that last November’s Leandro order did not explain how he could take part in a forced money transfer without running afoul of state law. Roseland “has made a sufficient showing of substantial and irreparable harm,” Justice Trey Allen wrote.

Lawyers from N.C. Attorney General Josh Stein’s Justice Department have asked the Supreme Court to pursue an “expeditious” schedule in addressing outstanding Leandro issues. A court filing last week asked the court to adopt a schedule that would include 52 days for competing briefs, along with a “prompt” schedule for oral orguments.

Leandro, officially known now as Hoke County Board of Education v. State, dates back to 1994. The state Supreme Court has issued major rulings in the case in 1997, 2004, and 2022.