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NC officials: State budget pays over half of school spending order

Bart Everson
Flickr/Creative Commons

North Carolina's current state government budget spends a little over half of the amount necessary to carry out two years of a plan that a judge approved last year to address public education inequities, Gov. Roy Cooper's administration says.

Cooper's budget office this week gave special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson details on provisions in the budget enacted in November and how they match up with a remedial spending plan that Judge David Lee approved five months earlier.

The two-year budget allocated $958 million that would coincide with portions of $1.75 billion that Lee said should be spent on K-12 schools and other education initiatives through mid-2023, according to budget office data that Robinson requested.

Robinson is supposed to scrutinize the budget details in Lee's order by April 20 before the state Supreme Court takes up appeals in the next step of the “Leandro” litigation — named after a plaintiff’s name from the original case that began in 1994. Robinson, who scheduled a hearing for next Wednesday to hear arguments from lawyers for school districts, parents and state officials, could make changes to the order in light of the budget spending.

The Office of State Budget and Management said the two-year budget spent an amount equal to 63% of what the remedial plan envisioned for the year ending June 30 and 49% sought for the year ending June 30, 2023. The legislature will return to Raleigh next month and will make adjustments to overall second-year budget spending.

And while the remedial plan records more than 40 spending priorities in each of the two years, roughly half of those items annually received no funding, according to OSBM.

Last June, Lee agreed to an eight-year, $5.5 billion plan that he said would help the state satisfy landmark Supreme Court rulings from 1997 and 2004 that declared a constitutionally mandated “opportunity for a sound basic education” for at-risk children and those in poor regions.

Lee took an extraordinary step in November — days before a negotiated state budget between Republican legislative leaders and Cooper surfaced — by directing $1.75 billion be moved from state coffers to government agencies to carry out the plan. Lee said he was left with little choice to act because the legislative and executive branches had failed for years to fund education to repair inequities.

Republican lawmakers disagreed with Lee's assessment that portions of the state constitution addressing the right to education gave him authority to appropriate funds, saying that only the General Assembly has that power. That's an arguments the Supreme Court could soon address.

A Court of Appeals panel in late November agreed with GOP legislators and blocked enforcement of Lee's spending directive, while leaving the remedial plan in place. The Supreme Court agreed March 21 that the case would be fast-tracked to the justices for consideration, after a trial judge reviewed Lee's order in light of the enacted budget.

Also on March 21, Chief Justice Paul Newby appointed Robinson to handle this next portion of the case and not Lee, who had been overseeing the Leandro lawsuit since 2016. A spokesperson for the state court system said Lee had reached the mandatory retirement age of 72 for judges. Judges who reach that age, however, can continue to preside over cases, with a chief justice’s approval. Lee is a registered Democrat. Robinson and Newby are Republicans.

Cooper, a Democrat, sought unsuccessfully for the remedial plan to be included in the final budget bill, which he still signed into law. The plan was based on an outside consultant’s report and input from Cooper and the State Board of Education.

The approved budget spends $26 billion this fiscal year and $27 billion next year. Supporters of the remedial plan say the state has money in its coffers to fund it fully. The two-year budget law, however, leaves all but a few million dollars unaccounted for.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

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