Mention the name “Leandro” and you’re sure to see heads nodding among the North Carolina education policy establishment. For the rest of us, the name might generate some shrugs.
Who or what is Leandro? And why have we been talking about him, her or her for almost three decades?
Carolina Journal now looks back at some key aspects of Leandro’s long history. This review should provide valuable context as Leandro returns to the state’s highest court later this month.
The story begins in 1994. Five North Carolina County school systems – Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson and Vance – and the families of students attending schools in those systems filed suit against the State of North Carolina. North and the State Board of Education. The plaintiffs argued that local schools did not have enough state taxpayer money to meet North Carolina’s constitutional education obligations.
The lawsuit was called Leandro v. North Carolina State. It is named after 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 abbreviated name Leandro remained in use for 28 years.
Larger and wealthier school systems embarked on legal proceedings as Leandro advanced. Schools in Wake, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Durham, Winston-Salem/Forsyth and Asheville argued that the state also failed in its duty to them.
In 1996, the North Carolina Court of Appeals dismissed the claims of plaintiffs and intervening groups in the case. But the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed course.
A unanimous opinion written in 1997 by Chief Justice Burley Mitchell concluded that two sections of the NC Constitution – Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 – “combine to ensure every child of this state the opportunity to receive a solid basic education in our public schools.
Despite this guarantee, the majority of the state Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals that the constitutional obligation did not mean that the requesting school systems were entitled to significant funding increases.
Unlike most cases that end in the state’s highest court, Leandro didn’t end with the judges’ declaration in 1997.
The case returned to trial court. Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning spent nearly two decades holding hearings and reviewing data to determine how well the state was complying with its duty to provide students with “an opportunity to receive a solid basic education”.
At one point, Manning ordered the state to provide pre-kindergarten services to at-risk students. This decision prompted an appeal directly to the State Supreme Court. The court responded in 2004, with a decision codenamed Leandro II to distinguish him from Leandro I in 1997.
The Leandro II decision, written by Judge Robert Orr, rejected Manning’s preschool mandate. But Orr and his colleagues confirmed much of what Manning had determined about services for at-risk students. Leandro II also gave more details on how the state would fulfill the mandate of “solid basic education”.
Again, the state Supreme Court did not order additional spending on education.
Manning continued to argue with state and local education officials for another decade. Health problems eventually forced him to walk away from the case. In March 2015, he ordered the parties to present a “definitive” action plan to deal with Leandro’s problems.
In October 2016, Union County Superior Court Judge David Lee took over the case. A month later, voters in North Carolina placed Governor Roy Cooper in the governor’s mansion. Both changes led to significant developments in Leandro’s story.
As Cooper established a Governor’s Commission on Access to a Strong Basic Education, focusing on Leandro-related issues, attorneys representing the state government began working with Leandro’s plaintiffs on joint requests. They asked for Lee’s permission to hire an independent consultant. This consultant would develop a Leandro plan.
In March 2018, Lee appointed San Francisco-based WestEd to serve as Leandro’s in-demand consultant. At the same time, the judge denied the State Board of Education’s request to be removed from court oversight in the case.
WestEd released its report in 2019, although the details remained confidential for more than two months. In January 2020, just over a month after the report was made public, Lee issued an order relying heavily on WestEd’s findings.
In March 2021, the Leandro parties submitted an eight-year plan to Lee. He also focused on recommendations from WestEd. Dubbed the Comprehensive Recovery Plan, it included billions of dollars in new spending on education, as well as new studies and reports that could generate even more spending in years to come.
On November 10, 2021, Lee ordered the state to spend an additional $1.75 billion to implement the Comprehensive Remedial Plan recommendations for two years. In addition to ordering more spending, the judge made the controversial decision to order the money transferred from the state treasury and transferred to state agencies. Lee’s order bypassed the General Assembly and instead focused on the director, comptroller, and treasurer of the state budget.
The second part of Lee’s order caused Leandro’s latest dispute. This dispute returned the case to the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
Comptroller Linda Combs went to the North Carolina Court of Appeals and won a rare “writ of restraining” against Lee’s Nov. 10 order. Combs argued that she could not participate in any transfer of funds without the authorization of the General Assembly. To do so would violate his oath of office and expose him to criminal charges.
Leandro’s plaintiffs and North Carolina Department of Justice 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 up the case. First, the court ordered a new review by the trial judge.
Eight days after Lee’s November 10 order, Cooper had signed a new state budget with broad bipartisan support. The state Supreme Court urged Justice Leandro to determine how this new budget would affect the $1.75 billion price tag he imposed on taxpayers on Nov. 10.
The same day 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 the progress of proceedings against Leandro.
With the case back before a trial judge, Republican legislative leaders formally entered the debate. Like Combs, they opposed the forced transfer of money. They also argued that the state budget law completely overruled Lee’s Nov. 10 order. Once the legislative and executive branches agreed to the education provisions in the budget, Lee lost all authority to direct any other education-related spending, lawmakers said.
On April 26, Robinson made two major changes to Lee’s five-month order. First, the new judge reduced the amount of the order from $1.75 billion to $785 million. That number was close to the figure recommended by Leandro’s plaintiffs and North Carolina Department of Justice attorneys.
Robinson also rejected Lee’s forced money transfer. Finding that no court had overturned the Court of Appeals’ “writ of prohibition” against Lee’s order, Robinson determined that he was obligated to follow the appeals judges’ reasoning.
Now the case is back in the state Supreme Court. Oral arguments are scheduled for August 31. The judges will consider Lee’s Nov. 10 order and Robinson’s amended April 26 order.
Plaintiffs and attorneys representing the executive branch of the state approve of Lee’s plan, including the forced money transfer. Legislative leaders oppose any court order that substitutes judicial decisions for educational choices made by the decision-making branches of state government. Nels Roseland, who took over as acting state comptroller after Combs retired on June 30, continues to support Combs’ legal strategy of fighting the forced money transfer.
After the state’s highest court hears argument, the court will issue its decision “on a date to be determined in the discretion of the court.”