RALEIGH, N.C. (WGHP) – The word “Leandro” has been part of the educational nomenclature in North Carolina for so long that you could argue it should be its own classroom subject.

Since 1994, when a group of five minority-majority counties – Hoke Halifax, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland – sued the state under Hoke County Board of Education, et al, v. State of North Carolina et al, arguing that not all students were equally funded, this case has become a heavyweight fight for equitable and adequate school funding under the formula generated by the General Assembly.

Guilford County Schools 2021 graduating class celebrates in person
Equitable school funding will be taken up this week by the North Carolina General Assembly. (WGHP)

Leandro has been in and out of more courtrooms, passed through more judges, been argued in so many ways in 28 years that its current status seems like just another ring in what has become an unending legal circus.

The suit even has more than one version, with new plaintiffs and new defendants and new nuances, and there have been at least two judgments in favor of the plaintiffs, several court affirmations and an agreed mediation. Still, not a dime has been moved anywhere but on paper.

On Wednesday, the case will get one more performance in court, when the NC Supreme Court will hear arguments about why the General Assembly should transfer $1.75 billion from the state’s budget to fund the settlement – $1.5 billion to the state Department of Public Instruction for the 115 public school districts, $189.9 million to the Department of Health and Human Services and $41.3 million to the UNC system – as Superior Court Judge David Lee ordered them to do last year. The hearing starts at 9:30 a.m., and you can watch it on YouTube. But there’s a lot to understand before you start watching.

NC Chief Justice Paul Newby

Lee was replaced in March, by order of Chief Justice Paul Newby, with Judge Michael L. Robinson. That decision, for which Newby gave no reason, came on the same day that his court announced it would hear this case.

That was necessary because state Comptroller Linda Combs fought back last fall and won, by 2-1 margin, a judgment from the state Court of Appeals that Lee had no right to order the state to pay the $1.7 billion.

That sounds like the last prelude to this week, but there’s more.

The General Assembly, which passed a 2-year budget that would partially fund the Leandro directive, argued – as it has under both Democratic and Republican control – that only lawmakers could spend the money and not the courts.

Then Robinson in April ruled lawmakers did have to pay the full amount but overturned Lee’s directive and didn’t tell them how to pay the $785.1 million he said the state owed under the original judgment.

In summation: We have a mediated settlement, a court-ordered distribution of funds and another court saying the court can order the distribution and that the state owes the money but that the court can’t tell lawmakers how to pay the bill.

If you can follow all of that, you have a right to know that the name “Leandro” was associated with the case because eighth-grader Robb Leandro was the named plaintiff when this all began. Guess what? Leandro is now a lawyer.

The case has involved a lot of lawyers, but it also has involved the people you elected to represent you and your tax dollars in Raleigh. Those lawmakers are the ones who would allocate and distribute the funds as stipulated by judges.

WGHP reached out to more than a dozen members of both parties who represent the Piedmont Triad in the state Senate and House. We asked two specific questions, and some of those lawmakers responded. We share their lightly edited views here.

State Sen. Amy Galey (WGHP)
State Sen. Michael Garrett
State Sen. Gladys Robinson
State Rep. Amber Baker (NCGA)
State Rep. Pricey Harrison

What is your position on the long-and-winding Leandro case as it heads to the Supreme Court again?

State Rep. Amy Galey (R-Alamance): I agree that North Carolina’s children are entitled to and need a sound, basic education. Since 1777, the General Assembly has enacted education policy. The NC Constitution clearly says that the General Assembly is in charge of the state budget. For 245 years the General Assembly has appropriated the funds for education. After all this time, certain activists want to upend our constitution because they don’t agree with the General Assembly’s decisions. If they want to change education policy, instead of going to court, they should work with the legislature. The Supreme Court of North Carolina has absolutely no business appropriating funds and enacting policy. That’s just wrong.

State Sen. Michael Garrett (D-Greensboro): It’s unfortunate our children’s future is a point of contention that must be litigated. From Murphy to Manteo you can find under-resourced schools, underpaid teachers, school busses without drivers, and broken facilities. These issues have compounded with the passage of time and little action from the General Assembly leadership. I am hopeful we will find a resolution to this case soon, for a future in education worth of our kids. 

State Sen. Gladys Robinson (D-Greensboro): I introduced legislation to fully fund Leandro, having served on the first Achievement Gap Commission in NC. I have urged full funding and debated the issue with Republicans both in the Senate Education Committee and on the Senate floor. Presently the case is again in court, but it is disgraceful and disrespectful to our children and parents that the Republicans refuse to give children who are low-income and mostly minorities resources to have a sound basic and equal education. Yet Republicans raise the funding for (private) opportunity schools. It is my sincere hope that the courts rule that the funding be taken from the General Fund; if not, this will continue to be one of my key legislative issues. 

State Rep. Amber Baker (D-Winston-Salem): As an educator and now a legislator, I support the court’s decision that inadequate and inequitable funding for education disproportionately affected students of color and those from families with low income. Fully funding Leandro is essential to strengthening our public schools as well as expanding access to early childhood education, which is critical to assisting children from low-income homes to access developmentally appropriate instruction that prepares students to enter kindergarten. 

State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro): The Leandro case is unfortunate. It should not take a lawsuit for the state of North Carolina to live up to its constitutional obligation to fund a sound, basic education. Earlier this year, our Superior Court ruled that our schools are owed $785 million in funding to be considered fully funded. That’s $785 million that could be used to reduce the strain that we are seeing as more than 11,000 educational staff positions remained unfilled at the start of this school year. With wages unsustainable for working-class educators and staffing shortages unsustainable for our schools, our children’s education is suffering. This is not a problem isolated to just a few counties; this is a problem for all counties across North Carolina. It is my sincere hope that the legal battles will soon end and that we can do the right thing for North Carolina’s students without needing a court to compel us to. The reality is, that if our legislative counterparts on the Republican side agreed to fully fund public education, this would not be an issue.

What would be the best solution to ending this nearly-30-year case?

GALEY: If it were to honor its oath of office and uphold the NC Constitution, the NC Supreme Court would rule that the courts have no power to order appropriations from the General Fund or enact education policy. It is extremely unfortunate that Judge David Lee’s order to transfer hundreds of millions of dollars from the treasury has set off a constitutional crisis and power struggle between the courts and the legislature.

GARRETT: The General Assembly’s respecting the findings of the court would be the best outcome to this case. The continuous delays of reaching a resolution have simply compounded the challenges facing our public schools. It’s past time we make a meaningful down payment on reforming public education in North Carolina. 

ROBINSON: The best solution is to elect candidates who believe that all children are entitled to a sound basic and equal education and that it is the responsibility of the NC legislature to provide resources to assure equitable education. The Republicans who have been in the majority don’t care about or represent low-income, minority children who are becoming the majority of North Carolina’s public school systems.

BAKER: One solution to ending this 30-year-old case is to utilize a portion of the $6 billion state reserves to fully fund the findings in the case. Additionally, the state could work with businesses around the state to set up a fund that could also have a yearly state appropriation to provide universal pre-K statewide. This would definitely support the counties that do not have a strong tax base, which was one of the initial concerns outlined in the case.

HARRISON: The best solution to ending the Leandro saga is for the General Assembly to follow the blueprint laid out by Leandro and fully fund our public schools in North Carolina. All of our districts, but particularly our districts in low-income and rural areas, are suffering due to a lack of sufficient funding. Our public schools are meant to serve as engines of opportunity for the next generation. Education is the great equalizer. But if we continue down this road, we are saying to North Carolina children in these districts that they are simply on their own. That is not the education promised to them by North Carolina’s Constitution, and that’s not the message I intend to send to the children and families of my district. There is a roadmap for us to follow, and we have the money in reserves that could go toward it. All we need now is equal willpower on both sides of the aisle to do it.