Leandro parties offer competing orders for Ammons to consider

Adobe stock photo

Listen to this story (5 minutes)

  • The judge in the long-running Leandro education funding case could set the state's funding obligation between $376 million and $677 million.
  • Parties in the case submitted competing proposals Friday. Judge James Ammons is responding to an order from the N.C. Supreme Court.
  • The money would cover unfunded items from the second and third years of a multiyear Leandro comprehensive remedial plan.

The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running Leandro case could order the state to pay another $376 million to $677 million for education-related expenses. The dollar figure will depend on which plan he chooses to adopt.

Parties in the case submitted Friday different calculations of the amount of money needed to comply with earlier court orders in Leandro. Superior Court Judge James Ammons has said he is likely to issue a decision within the next two weeks.

The N.C. Supreme Court ordered Ammons to recalculate the state’s Leandro funding obligation. The high court’s order called on the judge to assess the impact of education items included in the state budget bill signed into law in 2022.

Lawyers for state legislative leaders urge Ammons to choose the lower figure — $376 million — for the outstanding Leandro obligation. They argue that enacted state budgets include about $48 million more for Leandro-related expenses than state executive branch budget officials have acknowledged.

Lawmakers argue that Ammons also should consider “double counting” in earlier Leandro funding orders. Those orders were designed to cover the second and third years of a multiyear Leandro plan, dubbed the comprehensive remedial plan. Since the state is now operating in the plan’s third year, legislators say there is no reason to order funding for the same programs twice.

A document from Leandro plaintiffs — Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance County school systems — along with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools urges Ammons to order more than $677 million in new spending. The school districts used calculations issued last December from the governor’s Office of State Budget and Management. Another group dubbed the Penn-intervenors submitted a separate document mirroring the Leandro plaintiffs’ request.

Meanwhile, lawyers from the N.C. Justice Department made one adjustment to their earlier funding proposal. After initially releasing the $677 million figure last December, Justice Department attorneys now agree with legislative leaders to reduce that amount by $2 million. State lawyers concede money the governor has dedicated to a new teacher support program should count in the Leandro calculations.

That means the state’s executive branch now urges Ammons to order $675 million in additional Leandro-related spending.

Leandro parties submitted their documents one week after Ammons conducted a 2 ½-hour hearing in the case.

Ammons confirmed during the hearing that he would not issue a “transfer order” forcing state government officials to move any money without legislative approval. That was one of the key pieces of the Leandro case that returned the issue to the N.C. Supreme Court last year.

“I have been instructed by the Supreme Court to issue a transfer order in my original order,” Ammons said as the hearing concluded. “That’s now not possible because they have reinstated the writ of prohibition from the Court of Appeals. So I do not intend to do that.”

The transfer order was part of a November 2021 ruling from Judge David Lee, who oversaw the Leandro case at the time. Lee determined that state government needed to spend $1.75 billion more than the education funding included within the state budget. The extra money would cover unfunded items listed in the second and third years of the multiyear, court-endorsed Leandro comprehensive remedial plan.

The plan was designed to meet North Carolina’s constitutional education obligations. State government’s executive branch and Leandro plaintiffs signed onto the plan, which was based on the work of a San Francisco-based consultant.

In addition to ruling that the state needed to boost its education spending by $1.75 billion, Lee also ordered that the state budget director, controller, and treasurer transfer the money without consulting the General Assembly. That “transfer order” prompted the controller to seek a “writ of prohibition” from the N.C. Court of Appeals. Appellate judges issued the writ. It stopped the transfer order.

The state Supreme Court blocked the “writ” last November, in a 4-3 party-line decision authored by the court’s Democratic justices. Now with a 5-2 Republican majority, the newly constituted Supreme Court has reinstated the writ. The high court plans to address outstanding Leandro issues in the months ahead. Those issues include the controller’s concerns about the legal impact of a forced money transfer.

As Ammons considers the Leandro funding number in the next week or two, it’s not clear when the state Supreme Court will take another look at the case. Officially known as Hoke County Board of Education v. State, it already has produced major state Supreme Court decisions in 1997, 2004, and 2022.