By Mitch Kokai
Mention the name “Leandro,” and you’re bound to see heads nodding among North Carolina’s education policy establishment. For the rest of us, the name might generate shrugs.
Who or what is Leandro? And why have we been talking about him, her, or it for nearly three decades?
Carolina Journal looks back now at some key aspects of the long-running Leandro story. This review should offer valuable context as Leandro returns to the state’s highest court by the end of the month.
The story starts in 1994. Five N.C. county school systems — Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance — and families of students attending schools in those systems filed suit against the state of North Carolina and the State Board of Education. Plaintiffs argued that the local schools did not have enough money from state taxpayers to meet North Carolina’s state constitutional education obligations.
The suit was titled Leandro v. State of North Carolina. It was named for Kathleen Leandro and her son Robert, the first plaintiffs named in the original complaint. Eventually, the case took on the new title Hoke County Board of Education v. State. But the Leandro shorthand name has remained in use for 28 years.
Larger, wealthier school systems jumped into the legal proceedings as Leandro moved forward. Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Durham, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, and Asheville schools argued that the state had failed its obligations to them as well.
In 1996, the N.C. Court of Appeals rejected claims from the plaintiffs and from groups that intervened in the case. But the N.C. Supreme Court reversed course.
A unanimous opinion written in 1997 by Chief Justice Burley Mitchell concluded that two sections of the N.C. Constitution — Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 — “combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.”
Despite this guarantee, the state Supreme Court’s majority agreed with the Appeals Court that the constitutional obligation did not mean that the plaintiff school systems were entitled to major funding increases.
Unlike most cases winding up at the state’s highest court, Leandro didn’t end with justices’ 1997 pronouncement.
The case returned to a trial court. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning spent almost two decades holding hearings and reviewing data to determine how well the state was complying with its duty to provide students “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education.”
At one point, Manning ordered the state to provide prekindergarten services to at-risk students. That decision prompted an appeal directly to the state Supreme Court. The court responded in 2004, with a decision dubbed Leandro II to distinguish it from Leandro I in 1997.
The Leandro II decision, authored by Justice Robert Orr, rejected Manning’s mandate of prekindergarten. But Orr and colleagues affirmed much of what Manning had determined about services for at-risk students. Leandro II also spelled out more details of how the state would meet the “sound basic education” mandate.
Once again, the state Supreme Court did not order additional education spending.
Manning continued to spar with state and local education officials for another decade. Health concerns eventually prompted him to step away from the case. In March 2015 he ordered parties to present a “definite” plan of action to deal with Leandro issues.
By October 2016, Union County Superior Court Judge David Lee took over the case. One month later, N.C. voters placed Gov. Roy Cooper in the governor’s mansion. Both changes led to significant developments in the Leandro story.
While Cooper set up a Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education, focusing on Leandro-related issues, attorneys representing state government started working with Leandro plaintiffs on joint requests. They sought authorization from Lee to hire an independent consultant. That consultant would develop a Leandro plan.
In March 2018 Lee appointed San Francisco-based WestEd to serve as the requested Leandro consultant. At the same time, the judge rejected the State Board of Education’s request to be dropped from court oversight in the case.
WestEd delivered its report in 2019, though details remained confidential for more than two months. In January 2020, little more than one month after the report reached the public, Lee issued an order relying heavily on WestEd’s findings.
By March 2021 the Leandro parties submitted an eight-year plan to Lee. It also focused on WestEd recommendations. Dubbed the comprehensive remedial plan, it called for billions of dollars in new education spending, along with new studies and reports that could generate even more expenses in the years to come.
On Nov. 10, 2021, Lee ordered the state to spend an additional $1.75 billion to implement two years of recommendations from the comprehensive remedial plan. In addition to ordering more spending, the judge took the controversial step of ordering the money transferred out of the state treasury and moved to state agencies. Lee’s order bypassed the General Assembly and focused instead on the state budget director, controller, and treasurer.
The second part of Lee’s order prompted the latest Leandro dispute. That dispute has returned the case to the N.C. Supreme Court.
Controller Linda Combs went to the N.C. Court of Appeals and secured a rare “writ of prohibition” against Lee’s Nov. 10 order. Combs argued that she could not take part in any transfer of funds without authorization from the General Assembly. To do so would violate her oath of office and expose her to criminal charges.
Leandro plaintiffs and the N.C. Justice Department attorneys urged the state Supreme Court to step in and resolve the dispute over the forced money transfer. The high court agreed in March to take the case. First, the court ordered a new review from the trial judge.
Eight days after Lee’s Nov. 10 order, Cooper had signed a new state budget with broad bipartisan support. The state Supreme Court urged the Leandro judge to determine how that new budget would affect the $1.75 billion price tag he had assessed to taxpayers on Nov. 10.
On the same day that the full Supreme Court returned the case to the trial court, Chief Justice Paul Newby replaced Lee. The chief justice installed Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson to oversee Leandro proceedings moving forward.
With the case back in front of a trial judge, Republican legislative leaders formally stepped into the debate. Like Combs, they opposed the forced money transfer. They also argued that the state budget act completely mooted Lee’s Nov. 10 order. Once the legislative and executive branches agreed to the education provisions in the budget, Lee lost any authority to order any other education-related spending, lawmakers said.
On April 26 Robinson made two major changes to Lee’s five-month-old order. First, the new judge whittled the size of the order down from $1.75 billion to $785 million. That number was close to the figure recommended by Leandro plaintiffs and N.C. Justice Department lawyers.
Robinson also threw out Lee’s forced money transfer. Ruling that no court had overturned the Appeals Court’s “writ of prohibition” against Lee’s order, Robinson determined that he was obligated to follow the appellate judges’ reasoning.
Now the case is back before the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled Aug. 31. Justices will examine Lee’s Nov. 10 order and Robinson’s April 26 amended order.
Plaintiffs and lawyers representing the state’s executive branch endorse Lee’s plan, including the forced money transfer. Legislative leaders object to any court order that substitutes judicial decisions for education choices made by state government’s policymaking branches. Nels Roseland, who took over as acting state controller after Combs retired June 30, continues to support Combs’ legal strategy of fighting the forced money transfer.
After the state’s highest court hears oral arguments, the court will issue its decision “upon a date to be chosen in the Court’s discretion.”