Time to pay up

Published 4:23 pm Thursday, August 14, 2008

By Staff
The Beaufort County Board of Education and its neighboring school boards should get in line as soon as possible to get their shares of nearly $750 million the state of North Carolina owes local school districts.
The state owes that much to school districts because state agencies erroneously kept revenue from civil penalties for nearly 10 years, ruled Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning. His ruling was made public. Manning imposed the $750 million as the state’s reimbursement to the local school districts to meet the requirements of a N.C. Supreme Court decision three years ago that said several state agencies did not forward specific revenues to school systems from 1996 to 2005.
But Manning’s ruling does not go far enough. It does not require the General Assembly or the offending agencies to put those revenues in a specific fund earmarked to meet technology needs of school districts. Manning said he could not force that to happen because to do so would exceed the judicial branch’s powers outlined in the state constitution.
Something must be done to get the money that lawfully belongs to the schools to the schools. Currently, it is unclear how much money would come to area school districts, but there’s no doubt they could use their shares of the $750 million in question. Now that Manning has defined what’s owed, those school systems that are owed money should push and push hard to get it.
By withholding that money from schools, the offending agencies, for lack of a better word, cheated students. Those school systems that were shortchanged should be pounding on the doors of legislators at the General Assembly.
North Carolina’s constitution requires that all fines and forfeitures collected because of violations of the law be spent ‘‘exclusively for maintaining free public schools.’’
In 2005, the N.C. Supreme Court increased the kinds of fees that are required to go to schools, from parking tickets for parking violations on state universities to late tax payments, according to The Associated Press.
Manning also said the money should be distributed on a per-pupil basis, meaning school districts with large student populations would receive more money than school districts with smaller student populations. On the surface, that seems fair because, in theory, each school district would be receiving the same amount of money per student.
Well, that just means the rich school systems get richer and the poor school systems, which desperately need the money, get the short end of the revenue stick, again. It would be commendable if the General Assembly would choose to allocate the bulk of the $750 million to school systems that have trouble providing the basics when it comes to education. No offense to school districts in the Raleigh or Charlotte areas, but the bulk of that $750 million would make a meaningful difference to school systems in rural areas.
Whatever the final solution, that solution should come as soon as possible. The state’s school-age children, now and in the future, deserve to see that money spent on their education. As for the school districts, they should not wait for what is already theirs.