Court: State, not counties accountable for poor school funds

Published 2:12 pm Tuesday, September 19, 2017

RALEIGH — Students and parents still fighting for sufficient school funding decades after they were guaranteed the right to a sound, basic education should make demands of the governor and legislators, not county officials, a divided state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.

Schoolchildren can’t sue Halifax County commissioners for unequally funding the county’s segregated public school districts, a majority of the three-judge panel ruled. Students inside substandard Halifax County Schools’ buildings are sometimes forced to walk through sewage to reach their lockers, yet they get less local tax dollars than the majority white Roanoke Rapids schools, lawyers for five students said.

But the majority in the 2-1 court decision said local families should take their problems to Raleigh since the General Assembly has total control over what counties can do.

The case is the first to address whether local governments have a duty alongside the state to provide every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education,” as the state Supreme Court determined in a landmark 1997 case named after one of the suing students, Leandro.

“Plaintiffs’ complaint describes serious problems in the schools in Halifax County, but because this defendant — the Halifax County Board of Commissioners — does not bear the constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education, we affirm the trial court’s order dismissing this action,” Judge Donna Stroud wrote for herself and Judge Lucy Inman.

Instead, it is state officials who have the constitutional obligation to provide basic educational opportunity for every North Carolina child, Inman wrote.

Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda McGee dissented, reasoning counties can be sued over insufficient school funding since the legislature assigned them financial responsibility for providing buildings and supplies. Lawyers for the students argued that it is the county commissioners who channel disproportionate funding to Roanoke Rapids schools, the only majority-white district of the three created in the 1960s in the county of 52,000 people.

“North Carolina schoolchildren must be able to pursue a declaratory action against those boards to assert that it has failed to adequately fund the aspects of public schooling assigned to it and that such a failure has resulted in the lack” of a constitutionally guaranteed educational opportunity, McGee wrote.

The Leandro school funding lawsuit by parents, children and school districts in five poor and largely rural counties —Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, Vance and Cumberland — argued that despite high tax rates, their local schools couldn’t generate enough revenues to provide an education for their children equal to what richer, urban districts could provide.

The state Supreme Court ruled that while there’s no constitutional right to equal funding, every North Carolina child had a fundamental education right and that the state was responsible for delivering that promise. For example, the court ruled in the case in 2002, the state must provide a competent, well-trained teacher in every classroom and principal managing every schoolhouse.

But the Supreme Court said then and the Court of Appeals repeated Tuesday that it’s up to legislators, governors and the education bureaucracy to take corrective actions.