The plaintiffs in the long-running Leandro school funding case have asked the court to bypass the legislature and order the state government to transfer $1.7 billion to begin funding components of the plan.
The plaintiffs made the request in a court filing obtained by WRAL-TV in Raleigh. The transfer would fund years two and three of the Comprehensive Remedial Plan, which in total calls for $5.6 billion in new spending on public education in North Carolina.
The development comes as the state marches toward a Nov. 8 deadline imposed by Superior Court Judge David Lee — the presiding jurist in the case — at which point the judge could issue an order compelling the state to act.
“Judge Lee would be ill-advised to adopt a proposed order that so blatantly ignores the constitutional authority of the legislature to dictate how taxpayer dollars are collected and spent,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “We expect the judiciary to exercise prudence and rationality. The proposed order demands that Judge Lee abandon both.”
Even as the court battle continues, lawmakers are negotiating a final budget deal with Gov. Roy Cooper that could fund components of the Leandro plan, although a compromise looks less and less likely. The versions already passed by the House and Senate over the summer do so in small increments, including $8.6 million over the next two fiscal years for teacher recruitment bonuses in low-wealth and high-needs schools.
Meanwhile, WRAL unearthed documents revealing the price tag of a report on which the Leandro funding recommendations are based: $2 million. The San Francisco-based consulting firm WestEd developed the more than 300-page report.
The tab was paid through a combination of public and private funds, including gifts from local foundations that frequently support progressive causes. For example, the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation kicked in $200,000, while the A.J. Fletcher Foundation contributed $50,000.
As for taxpayer dollars, the state Department of Health and Human Services chipped in $600,000 and the Department of Administration another $200,000.
“The plaintiffs and defendants are trying to turn a $2 million ante into a multi-billion-dollar, taxpayer-funded bonanza. Leandro is the grift that keeps on grifting,” said Stoops.
Sen. Deanna Ballard, R-Watauga, offered similar sentiments.
“A group of political allies is working with an unelected county judge to ‘order’ the Cooper administration to implement a spending plan supported by Governor Cooper and opposed by the legislature,” Ballard said in a statement.
“The proposed spending plan the court intends to ‘order’ aligns closely with Governor Cooper’s long-standing priorities,” Ballard adds. “In fact, WRAL revealed last night that the spending plan itself was paid for by the Cooper administration, a supposed ‘defendant’ in the case.”
“Consider how absurd this is: The Cooper administration is a ‘defendant’ in this case, yet used state dollars to fund the very plan that their political allies are suing to implement,” said Ballard, who is co-chair of the Senate Education Committee.
“This circus has devolved into a group of politically allied lawyers on both sides of the case convincing an unelected county judge to somehow order into place the governor’s preferred budget plan,” Ballard added. “It’s a sad mockery of the judicial system.”
“The list of recommendations produced by the out-of-state consultants overlapped with a number of Cooper administration priorities and is projected to cost $6-plus billion.”
The senator goes on to make a prediction about the case’s next steps. “In the coming weeks, an unelected county-level trial judge will illegally order the Cooper administration to implement the entire multibillion-dollar plan over the objections of the legislature.
“The judge will order the spending despite the North Carolina Supreme Court ruling as recently as 2020 that ‘the power of the purse is the exclusive prerogative of the General Assembly,'” Ballard’s release predicts.
“The bottom line: The ‘defendants’ and ‘plaintiffs’ in this case are political allies,” Ballard says. “They paid a group of consultants to recommend a spending plan favored by and funded by the Cooper administration, and they found an unelected judge to order the spending over the objections of the legislature.”
Said Stoops, “As usual, Senator Ballard gets it right. Leandro is nothing more than court-sanctioned collusion designed to extract billions of additional dollars from taxpayers and private enterprise.
“Ballard is singlehandedly laying waste to the Leandro charade.”
The Leandro lawsuit dates to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state over education funding. The N.C. Supreme Court has ruled twice since then — in 1997 and again in 2004 — that the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound, basic education” to all students.