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Five tries and 30 years: NC Supreme Court takes up Leandro school funding case again

Matthew Tilley, who represents the legislative leaders fighting the release of Leandro money, argues before the North Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday.
North Carolina Supreme Court YouTube channel
Matthew Tilley, who represents the legislative leaders fighting the release of Leandro money, argues before the North Carolina Supreme Court on Thursday.

The children whose parents sued North Carolina over school funding have grown up. The judge who spent 16 years trying to figure out the best path to improving the state’s education system has retired.

The state Supreme Court took up the Leandro case repeatedly since the suit was filed in 1994 — and the plaintiffs thought they had finally prevailed in 2022. That’s when the Supreme Court upheld a ruling that the state must release over $1.7 billion to pay for teachers, principals and programs for kids from pre-K to high school.

But on Thursday the Supreme Court — with a new Republican majority — heard new arguments over whether their predecessors were wrong in demanding that money.

Melanie Dubis, a lawyer for the school districts suing for more state money, told the court Thursday that the 2022 ruling should have been the end.

Lawyer Melanie Dubis argued Thursday that the state Supreme Court should let its 2022 Leandro ruling stand.
NC Supreme Court YouTube channel
Lawyer Melanie Dubis argued Thursday that the state Supreme Court should let its 2022 Leandro ruling stand.

“It has been the rule of this court for over 100 years that the court will not disturb its prior holding in the same case, even if it would have overturned that holding on a properly presented petition for rehearing,” Dubis said, adding that there was no such petition in this case.

And she had harsh words for the legislative leaders who are trying to fight the order to release more money for education, saying they “now have moved beyond just obfuscation and recalcitrance and they seek to drag the court into their gamesmanship.”

In 2023 the General Assembly approved about half of the spending that had been ordered, but state lawmakers dispute the remaining $678 million. Matthew Tilley, a Charlotte lawyer who represents those legislative leaders, argued Thursday that the courts lack authority to override the General Assembly’s spending decisions. And he said the courts went too far in issuing a statewide ruling.

“This is not a contest between those who want to fund education and those who don’t. It’s also not a case about whether or not our constitution guarantees every child in the state an opportunity to obtain a sound basic education. That right was granted in Leandro,” he said.

Instead, Tilley said, it’s about courts issuing orders to adopt “a plan which dictates virtually every aspect of education policy and funding, not just for the districts that were plaintiffs, but for all 115 school districts across the state, effectively removing those decisions from the political — from the democratic process.”

A long, twisted path

The original suit was filed by five low-wealth rural school districts, though the courts eventually zeroed in on one of them, Hoke County. The districts argued that without a big tax base to supplement state funding, they couldn’t provide the sound basic education guaranteed in the state constitution.

Six larger urban districts, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, soon joined them, arguing that they also needed more state money to meet the needs of large numbers of at-risk students. Five districts eventually dropped out, but CMS remains as both a plaintiff and defendant — just one of the many twists that make Leandro extraordinarily complex and confusing.

Some of the Supreme Court justices’ questions Thursday involved references to the hundreds of pages of reports and rulings that have been filed over the past 30 years — including 16 years when Wake Superior Court Judge Howard Manning visited plaintiff school districts, ordered more public prekindergarten (the state Supreme Court overruled him on that) and threatened to close low-performing CMS high schools, accusing them of “academic genocide.”

Justice Anita Earls (right) questions lawyer Matthew Tilley during oral arguments in the Leandro case Thursday.
NC Supreme Court YouTube channel
Justice Anita Earls (right) questions lawyer Matthew Tilley during oral arguments in the Leandro case Thursday.

Manning retired in 2015, and the more recent rulings involve a 2019 action plan created by state officials and a court-appointed consultant.

Justices Richard Deitz and Trey Allen, both Republicans elected in 2022, raised questions about the absence of current students as plaintiffs. Lawyers for both sides said the original plaintiffs were too old to be in school. Robb Leandro, who was in eighth grade when the suit bearing his name was filed, is now a lawyer himself.

“This case needs to get to the outcome, which is to cure a very serious violation of the constitutional rights of students in our state,” Deitz said to Dubis. “But one thing that’s awkward is that your client is the government. And it’s not just the government but it’s the very government that’s violating the children’s constitutional rights.”

He voiced concerns that the school districts might shift blame for their own problems to the state and that current students might find themselves blocked from action because of Leandro. Dubis said the state constitution makes it the state’s responsibility to provide public education, and she said the ruling for more money is an appropriate response.

She also noted that the original plaintiffs may be out of school, but she said that 69% of current elementary and middle students “cannot read at a level that the state standardized test says is Leandro compliant.” She said that represents more than 480,000 students “who will become the third generation of children since this lawsuit was filed to pass through our state school system without the benefit of relief — if this court takes away from them the relief that it finally delivered 14 months ago.”

Protests and fears

After an 80-minute session to hear oral arguments, the justices adjourned. They will issue a ruling later.

Rev. William Barber speaks at a protest outside the courthouse before Thursday's oral arguments in the Leandro case.
@RevDrBarber livestream on X
Rev. William Barber speaks at a protest outside the courthouse before Thursday's oral arguments in the Leandro case.

Before and after the court session, protesters organized by the Every Child NC coalition urged the court and the General Assembly to follow the 2022 Supreme Court ruling and release the money.

The Rev. William Barber, one of North Carolina’s best-known civil rights activists, told the gathering that “North Carolinians ought to be pissed off.”

“Of all the things that the legislature could be doing and the Supreme Court could be doing, to try to roll back what’s been the law of the land for 150 years — the law that undergirds the Leandro decision was put in place right after the Civil War,” he said.

Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said the focus of legislators and justice should be on the future: “Their actions today will affect almost 1.5 million public school students who are in classrooms, taught by educators who are in school right now,” she said. “And it will echo in those classrooms and in the corridors of hallways today and tomorrow.”

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.