Judge Leandro sets $677 million as a liability for education spending in NC

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The judge overseeing North Carolina’s long-running Leandro education funding case says the state must spend an additional $677 million to cover items in a court-approved plan. That number matches a figure released by Governor Roy Cooper’s Government Budget Office in December 2022.

A 12-page order Friday night from Judge James Ammons rejected proposed revisions from the state’s legislative leaders. These revisions would have reduced Leandro’s outstanding spending commitment to at least $376 million.

Ammons’ order responded to a November 2022 directive from the NC Supreme Court. The Supreme Court asked Ammons to determine how changes to the state budget that are signed into law in 2022 will affect previous Leandro rulings.

The November directive originally called for Ammons to order officials of the state executive branch to transfer funds from the state treasury to meet Leandro’s commitment. But the new North Carolina Supreme Court, by a 5-2 Republican majority, took that option off the table in March. The Supreme Court will decide in the coming months whether a trial judge can compel officials to transfer funds without permission from the General Assembly.

Two different judges overseeing the Leandro Case before Ammons calculated the education spending commitment owed to the state at $1.75 billion in November 2021 and $785 million in April 2022. The smaller figure of $677 million indicates that the state’s last two signed budgets processed more than $1 billion in Leandro related items.

Ammons’ order specifically sets Leandro’s spending commitment at $509,701,707 for the NC Department of Public Education, $133.9 million for the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, and $34.2 million for the University of North Carolina System.

Those numbers match accounts first put forth by NC Justice Department lawyers last year, just over a month after the state Supreme Court directed in November. The State Budget and Administration Office, which works for Cooper, prepared the accounts.

Ammons specifically addressed five items that could have reduced his spending number on Leandro by more than $48.4 million. Legislative leaders argued that spending on items such as new teacher support, state and regional support, and master salaries should have been part of the state’s accounts. In each case, Ammons refused to accept the legislators’ numbers.

The judge also took no action on the lawmakers’ request to address hundreds of millions of dollars that would fund the same programs twice, since the original order in November 2021 and the amended order in April 2022 were designed to address two years of Leandro’s multiyear spending. Plan.

Ammons wrote, “This Court will not be disturbed by … the ‘exact and accurate calculations’ which were made a year ago.

“[T]His court retains jurisdiction in this case to ensure that this order is enforced
and to monitor continued constitutional compliance,” Ammons concluded.

“The court of first instance will await directions on how to do this,” he added in a footnote
moving forward “.

Now that Ammons has issued his order, the action in Leandro’s case will likely go back to the state supreme court. That court delivered key rulings in the case, formally known as Hook County Board of Education v. State, in 1997, 2004, and 2022.

If Ammons’ account of Leandro’s pending commitment persists, the main issue for the Supreme Court will be whether the trial judge can bypass the General Assembly to address Leandro.

The November 2021 order, from Judge David Lee, would have forced the state budget director, comptroller and treasurer to move $1.75 billion from the state treasury. The money would have covered two years of otherwise unfunded items in Leandro’s plan, which is officially called a comprehensive treatment plan.

The comptroller objected to the forced transfer of funds and obtained a “blocking order” from the North Carolina Court of Appeals. This prevented the forcible transfer of an ordered piece to me.

By April 2022, after Judge Michael Robinson replaced Lee to preside over the case, the forced money transfer was not included in the amended order. Robinson called for $785 million in Leandro spending, again focusing on two years of the court-sanctioned plan.

A state supreme court ruling in November 2022 would have allowed the forced transfer of funds. But that order arrived four days before voters replaced two Democratic justices on the North Carolina Supreme Court with Republicans. The court switched from a 4-3 Democratic majority to a 5-2 majority in favor of the Republicans.

When the Comptroller’s Office raised persistent objections about the details of implementing a forced cash transfer, the Supreme Court’s new majority reinstated the “withholding order” in March. No judge can override the General Assembly for Leandro spending until the Supreme Court issues a new ruling.

The Supreme Court has not specified when it plans to address the Comptroller’s objections.