RALEIGH — The judge in North Carolina’s long-running Leandro school funding legal dispute calls for state government to spend an additional $785 million on education-related items. But he has jettisoned a controversial provision from a previous court ruling that raised constitutional concerns.
Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson will not order officials to transfer money out of the state treasury to cover the $785 million in new spending. The money is slated to cover items spelled out in a court-ordered Comprehensive Remedial Plan for state education.
Another judge’s $1.75 billion spending order issued on Nov. 10, 2021, had included a provision demanding that state executive branch officials transfer money to state agencies without the General Assembly’s input. It was that portion of the Nov. 10 order that prompted the latest legal dispute in the Leandro case.
“[T]he Court acknowledges that the Court of Appeals has already ruled on the enforceability of the 10 November Order,” Robinson wrote in his 26-page order. “[O]n 30 November 2021, a panel of the Court of Appeals ruled that ‘the trial court’s conclusion that it may order petitioner to pay unappropriated funds from the State Treasury is constitutionally impermissible and beyond the power of the trial court.’”
“The Court of Appeals’ 30 November Order has not been overruled or modified, and the undersigned concludes that it is binding on the trial court,” Robinson added. “Accordingly, this court cannot and shall not consider the legal issue of the trial court’s authority to order State officers to transfer funds from the State treasury to fund the CRP. Rather, the undersigned believes that this court should, by an amended order, comply with the Court of Appeals’ determination.”
With Robinson’s decision to limit his order’s scope, it’s unclear what will happen next in the case. The case already is scheduled to return to the N.C. Supreme Court. But that court was scheduled to address the constitutional issue of whether a trial judge can force state officials to transfer money.
Now that the issue of a judicially ordered money transfer is off the table, the state Supreme Court might not have an active dispute to consider.
“Judge Robinson’s order is a first step toward correcting his predecessor’s unconstitutional overreach,” said Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the John Locke Foundation. “It bodes well for his ongoing stewardship of a case that regrettably continues in perpetuity.”
As for the funding piece of Robinson’s order, the judge agreed with all parties in the case that a state budget enacted last Nov. 18 — eight days after the earlier court order — funds significant portions of the CRP. The judge’s final numbers differed to some degree from those offered by plaintiffs and state government lawyers.
While most parties in the case had called on Robinson to whittle the original $1.75 billion spending order down to $795 million and then $770 million, the judge settled on $785 million.
Specifically, he ordered $608,006,248 in new funding for the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, $142,900,000 for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, and $34,200,000 for the University of North Carolina System.
Robinson ordered that the two state departments and UNC System “have and recover from the State of North Carolina” the $785 million. The judge did not say anything about how the money would reach its intended target.
The state Supreme Court sent the case to Robinson on March 21. Justices initially gave Robinson 30 days to determine how the state budget affected the original $1.75 billion order issued by his predecessor, Judge David Lee. Last week, Robinson asked for an additional seven days to finish his work.
Tuesday’s order arrived one day before his extended deadline.
The Leandro case, officially known now as Hoke County Board of Education v. State of N.C., started with an initial complaint in 1994. The state Supreme Court has issued two major rulings in the dispute in 1997 and 2004.
The state’s highest court had agreed to hear the case again after State Controller Linda Combs convinced the Appeals Court to block Lee’s Nov. 10 order. Combs argued that state law prevented her from transferring any money out of the state treasury without the legislature’s approval.