Budget's constitutionality disputed

New arguments in the long-running Leandro case will be heard June 22.

staff writerJune 12, 2011 

The budget passed by the legislature cuts or eliminates the very programs that help keep North Carolina within the state's constitutional mandate of providing a sound basic education for every child, according to new arguments by lawyers in a school finance lawsuit.

In the long-running lawsuit known as Leandro, attorneys representing five low-wealth counties have challenged the $19.7 billion budget passed by the legislature earlier this month.

That budget is now before Gov. Bev Perdue, who could decide whether to veto it this week, but Republican leaders in the legislature believe they have a veto-proof majority. Education has been the flashpoint of the debate over the budget, and Perdue has been outspoken in her criticism of the Republican-written plan.

The spending plan, which is due to take effect next month, will be the subject of a hearing June 22 by Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning Jr., who has monitored school funding for years as part of the landmark Leandro case.

In ordering the hearing, Manning wrote that despite the difficult economic situation and a gaping budget shortfall, the basic educational assets guaranteed to each child "must remain in place in every school and classroom in the State of North Carolina."

When the judge's order was filed last month, Senate leader Phil Berger declined to comment in detail about the Leandro case, but said he hoped Manning wasn't trying to assume the role of lawmaker.

In a YouTube video posted Friday imploring Perdue to sign the budget, Berger, an Eden Republican, said: "To hear Gov. Perdue talk, you'd think the sky was falling." He pointed out that the Republican plan includes full state funding for teachers and teacher assistants.

The Republicans want to add more money for teachers to reduce class size in early grades. But their plan makes other significant reductions to education and forces local school districts to do more cutting.

And that's where the plan runs afoul of the state constitution, say attorneys for the Leandro plaintiffs - school districts in Hoke, Robeson, Vance, Halifax and Cumberland counties.

In a pre-hearing document filed Friday, they argue that the pending budget "breaks the Constitution's promise to the children of North Carolina that they have an equal opportunity to a sound basic education."

They say the legislature's budget "eviscerates" requirements previously ordered by the court and approved by the state Supreme Court. They cited the following cuts:

A $124 million "discretionary" reduction passed on to local school districts, which is expected to lead to layoffs of teachers and teacher assistants. The cut is on top of $305 million in reductions to locals in 2009-10.

A 20 percent cut to More at Four preschool program for at-risk children, and the transfer of the program out of the state's education department.

The elimination of professional development funding for teachers, including the end of such programs as the Teacher Academy, the N.C. Center for the Advancement of Teaching and the Teaching Fellows Program.

The elimination of Learn and Earn online courses for high school students.

The elimination of money for handheld diagnostic tools for teachers that allow them to track student learning.

In large part, these initiatives were efforts by the state to comply with the court rulings in the Leandro case, said Melanie Dubis, one of the plaintiffs' attorneys.

"This budget runs the risk of undoing all of that progress that has been made," she said.

The Republican leaders who wrote the budget have questioned the judge's authority to intervene in matters of lawmaking.

"The court is not supposed to make legislation," Dubis said. "However, it is very clearly the court's job to interpret the constitution and to enforce the constitution and to review legislative acts for constitutionality."

jane.stancill@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4559

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