News: Quick Takes

N.C. Supreme Court asked to decide whether county or state controls school spending decisions

Former UNC Center for Civil Rights Managing Attorney Mark Dorosin, pictured outside a September 2017 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, represented parents in a case against Halifax County. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)
Former UNC Center for Civil Rights Managing Attorney Mark Dorosin, pictured outside a September 2017 meeting of the UNC Board of Governors, represented parents in a case against Halifax County. (CJ Photo by Kari Travis)

The N.C. Supreme Court on Monday heard another round of arguments over school funding — this time whether county commissioners or General Assembly lawmakers are responsible for guaranteeing sufficient spending.

In Silver et al. v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, students and their families hold the county commissioners responsible for unequal funding among the various school districts in the county. The defendants — the Board of County Commissioners — are pointing the finger at the General Assembly.

The case originally addressed parents’ wishes to force three of Halifax’s school districts to merge. Parents said the county was spending too little in two predominantly black school districts when compared with a majority white school district. The case has since morphed into a debate about school funding responsibilities.

The Court of Appeals heard arguments Sept. 19, 2016. Judges ultimately sided with the Halifax County Board of Commissioners. Judge Donna Stroud wrote the opinion and Judge Lucy Inman concurred. Judge Linda McGee dissented.

Plaintiffs appealed the decision, taking the case to the highest state court. Attorney Mark Dorosin, representing the plaintiffs, argued that since county commissioners make spending decisions, then they are responsible for any inequities.

“Counties’ funding decisions have failed to ensure the constitutional rights of students and the state has given the counties the power to remedy the harms specifically at issue here,” Dorosin argued. “By statute, counties must provide adequate operational funding to school districts. They must provide school facilities, furniture, and equipment. They must provide water, supplies, and sanitation facilities for schools.”

Dorosin argued the state delegated spending responsibility to the Board of County Commissioners, and the board made decisions that underfunded certain Halifax school districts.

Justice Paul Newby questioned whether an existing statute explains how to settle disputes between school districts and county commissioners over funding. Dorosin said there is, but the process isn’t available for students and their families.

Attorney Garris Neil Yarborough, representing the defendants, argued a remedy already exist for students and their families. The landmark Leandro rulings cemented the state’s responsibility to provide a sound, basic education.

Yarborough said plaintiffs should’ve sued the state rather than the county commissioners.

“It is the state of North Carolina that is responsible for this,” Yarborough said. “The ultimate responsibility rests with the General Assembly. Leandro clearly says that.”

Newby asked how this case differed from the two Leandro rulings. Dorosin said Leandro dealt with state-allocated funds, while this case focuses on how local governments spend money.

Dorosin argued this case wasn’t an either/or scenario. The state and the county commission can share responsibility over school funding.

Yarborough argued the Leandro rulings set the precedent that the state has the ultimate responsibility to ensure a sound, basic education. This means state officials are fully responsible for inadequate funding.

“If the state of North Carolina was doing what it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here today,” Yarborough said.