News: CJ Exclusives

Lawsuit by NCSBA, school districts seeks $730 million from state

Plaintiffs say state hasn't kept up payments from a 2008 court order for school technology spending

DURHAM — The N.C. School Board Association and school districts are suing several state agencies to extend a 2008 court order.

The order requires the state to hand over nearly $730 million in civil fines and penalties to N.C. public schools for their technology needs. About 20 school districts joined NCSBA in filing the complaint.

The plaintiffs announced the lawsuit Wednesday, Aug. 1, at George Watts Montessori Magnet School.

“As a state, we have two choices: Invest in technology and have our students compete with the best and the brightest on a level playing field, or stick with the status quo and have our students potentially watching from the sidelines,” Minnie Forte-Brown, president of NCSBA, said. “I don’t think we want the latter.”

In 2008, Superior Court Judge Howard Manning issued a court order requiring the state to transfer into the Civil Penalty and Forfeiture Fund more than $747 million collected by state agencies between 1996 and 2005. The General Assembly created the fund in 2005 and required the money to go toward school technology.

School districts have received $18 million of the $747 million owed.

With the 2008 order scheduled to expire in August, NCSBA filed a complaint to extend the deadline.

“North Carolina’s public-school students deserve a 21st century education,” Forte-Brown said. “The use of current technology should not be a choice. It’s a necessity.”

Forte-Brown, who sits on the Durham school board, said of the 21 computers in George Watts’ computer lab, 20 are about 10 years old.

“They are slow,” Forte-Brown said. “You might as well call them typewriters.”

Rod Malone, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said his clients are willing to work with the state to develop a payment plan. Once the money is collected into forfeiture fund, each school district would get its share, which would be based on student population.

Since the original court order, a handful of lawmakers tried to pass legislation to address the issue, but the bills never gained traction. Rep. Jason Saine, R-Lincoln, filed House Bill 554 on April 5, 2017. That bill would have allowed for over collection of fines and penalties toward payment of the 2008 court order. H.B. 554 failed to move out of the House K-12 education committee.

Phoebe’s Law, which would have created a new fund from speeding fines in school zones, was introduced several times. It failed, too.

The 2008 court order came during the Great Recession. Leanne Winner, director of governmental relations at NCSBA, said the organization knew then it would be difficult to get the money but was willing to be patient. The economy has improved but the state still hasn’t paid.

Winner on March 29 wrote the General Assembly’s senior leadership asking for cooperation in reaching a settlement. The letter went unanswered.

Joseph Kyzer, spokesman for House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, placed the blame on Democratic lawmakers for the problem.

“The judgment was reached against Democrat lawmakers over a decade ago as they were slashing education spending by over $700 million in two years, furloughing teachers and cutting their pay,” Kyzer wrote in an emailed statement. “But since that time Republican leaders in the state General Assembly made schools their top priority by doubling K-12’s share of new state spending and increasing total public education appropriations by nearly $3 billion a year.”

Bill D’Elia, spokesman for Senate Leader Sen. Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, said they haven’t seen the filing yet and will need time to review it.

“But we agree that Democrats broke their promises to support public education when they were last in charge of the legislature — including by freezing teacher pay, furloughing teachers and looting public school funds to cover budget deficits created by their failed tax and spend policies — and that’s why voters rejected them in 2010,” D’Elia said in an emailed statement.