News: Quick Takes

N.C. Treasurer calls Leandro ruling a ‘constitutional crisis’

North Carolina continues to wait and see if the state Supreme Court will address a trial judge’s $1.7 billion education funding order. The state Appeals Court threw out that order, but the case could head to North Carolina’s highest court in the weeks ahead.

State Treasurer Dale Folwell said the waiting should be a moot point because the action by Superior Court Judge David Lee is unconstitutional.

“In this constitution, it says no money should leave the coffers unless it’s appropriated by the General Assembly,” Folwell told guest host Donna King, Carolina Journal editor-in-chief, Friday on PBS North Carolina’s “Front Row with Marc Rotterman.” “It’s just sad that we have gotten to a situation of an almost constitutional crisis in North Carolina on this Leandro decision.”

Leandro is the shorthand name for a series of school-funding court cases dating back to 1994.

Retired Union County Judge David Lee ordered the $1.7 billion transfer from the state’s coffers to fund public education in a hearing on Nov.10. The transfer would bankroll two years of a remedial plan in the Leandro case. The price tag for the entire plan is $5.6 billion.

Folwell said he is not alone in pointing out the unconstitutionality of the decision.

“The controller of North Carolina, Dr. Linda Combs, and the GA (General Assembly), which is one of the three legs of the stool that operate our state government and these agencies depend on to have these checks and balances, but, most importantly, the person who has shepherded the Leandro decision for the last 27 years, Judge [Howard] Manning, is also opposed to what Judge Lee has done,” he said.

Folwell called it “unfortunate” that Lee relied on a study that cost $2 million in taxpayer funds to make his decision, referring to the study from WestEd, a California-based education consulting company selected by Lee in 2018 to estimate the cost of meeting the state’s constitutional obligations for public education. Lee used the report to justify his ruling in November.

“This court for 17 years has granted every reasonable deference to the legislative and the executive branches of government to put together a plan. That simply has not occurred, for whatever reason. The court’s deference is at an end at this point,” said Lee at the time.

The N.C. Court of Appeals issued a “writ of prohibition” on Nov. 30. That writ, from a split 2-1 appellate panel, blocked Lee’s order.

Parties in the case who support court-ordered spending have asked the state Supreme Court to overrule the appellate judges. Combs and Republican legislative leaders asked the N.C. Supreme Court not to step into the latest dispute involving Leandro.

The next court filing in the case, from Leandro spending supporters, is due at the Supreme Court by Jan. 18.

There’s no timeline for the state Supreme Court to decide whether to take up the case. The state’s highest court has issued two prior opinions in the dispute, in 1997 and 2004.