Judge gives 3 weeks for NC General Assembly and Gov. Cooper to fully fund school plan

School Watch

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – After asking about the potential to issue fines or close schools, a judge said Monday he’s giving state leaders three weeks to comply with his order to fully fund a multibillion-dollar plan for education.

During a hearing Monday, attorneys in the case discussed steps courts in other states have taken in disputes over school funding, as Superior Court Judge David Lee asked them to draw up potential orders he could issue to try to force the state to implement the Leandro plan.

Lee asked about a decision by a judge in Kansas to order schools to close amid a dispute over funding.

“And, I don’t want to close any schools, don’t get me wrong. I’m just making inquiries,” Judge Lee said, calling the judge in that case “bold.”

The exchange prompted Republican Senate leader Phil Berger to issue a statement calling him “unhinged.”

“This is yet another example of why the founders were right to divide power among the branches of government, giving power to create law and spend money with the legislature, not an unaccountable and unelected trial judge. Judge Lee makes a mockery of our constitutional order with every additional hearing,” Berger said.

Attorneys also discussed what happened in Washington in 2015 when the state’s Supreme Court began fining the state $100,000 per day to try to compel leaders to fund schools in line with the state’s constitution. The fines ended nearly three years later when the court found the state had developed an adequate school funding plan.

“Anyone who argues, I would submit, that the court does not have the authority is arguing that our state Constitution is not worth the paper that it’s written on,” said Melanie Dubis, an attorney for plaintiffs in the case.

The hearing occurred as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and Republican leaders in the General Assembly are still negotiating the state budget, more than three months into the current fiscal year.

Attorneys for the state said it was possible those negotiations could wrap up in a matter of weeks, but that was uncertain.

The judge has ordered the state to fully fund the Leandro plan, which calls for at least $5.6 billion in new spending on schools by 2028. Cooper proposed fully funding the first two years of it in his budget plan he presented in March. Republicans have proposed funding parts of it.

Judge Lee asked plaintiffs’ attorneys to submit to him by Nov. 1 their proposed order for compelling the state to fund the plan, giving the state a week to respond. The judge could issue an order as soon as Nov. 8.

Though the leaders of the General Assembly are not listed as parties in the case, Judge Lee said Monday they are actually included in the case, as the State of North Carolina is listed as a defendant.

Sen. Berger rejected that notion.

“That is clearly not true, as the out-of-state consultants excluded the legislature from their closed-door process in developing their multi-billion dollar spending proposal,” a statement from his office said.

“The fact that the court and the legislature are not getting along when it comes to trying to address these constitutional provisions is not unusual,” said Dr. Terry Stoops, director of the Center for Effective Education at the conservative John Locke Foundation. “It’s more than just (Republican legislators) refusing to listen to what the judge says. They proclaim, and I think rightly so, that their constitutional power allows them to make these decisions.”

As the Monday hearing was underway, a group of pastors and education advocates held an event across the street from the Legislative Building calling for full implementation of the Leandro plan.

“The fact that we’re still fighting over this with Leandro is just absolutely ludicrous to me at this point,” said Rev. Suzanne Parker Miller, director of Pastors for North Carolina Children. “And, we’ve made strides and then we’ve fallen back. And we’ll make strides and we’ll fall back. But, we just can’t continue to not do what’s necessary for our children.”

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