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Everything you need to know about the Leandro litigation

North Carolina’s Leandro court case has been ongoing for more than 20 years. The case centers on the state’s constitutional mandate to provide every child with a sound, basic education.

Full name: Hoke County Board of Education, et al. and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Plaintiff-Intervenors and Rafael Penn; Clifton Jones; et al., Plaintiff-Intervenors v. The State of North Carolina and State Board of Education, and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, Realigned Defendant

Abbreviated name: Hoke County Board of Education v. State; also referred to as Leandro v. State

Court assigned case numbers: Wake County 95 CVS 1158; N.C. Court of Appeals 95-321 (1996), 11-1545 (2012 — opinion vacated by the N.C. Supreme Court); N.C. Supreme Court 179PA96 (1997); 530PA02 (2004); 5PA12-2 (2013)

All current plaintiffs: Hoke County Board of Education; Halifax County Board of Education; Robeson County Board of Education; Cumberland County Board of Education; Vance County Board of Education; Randy L. Hasty, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Randell B. Hasty; Steven R. Sunkel, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Andrew J. Sunkel; Lionel Whidbee, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Jeremy L. Whidbee; Tyrone T. Williams, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Trevelyn L. Williams; D.E. Locklear, Jr., individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Jason E. Locklear; Angus B. Thompson II, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Vandaliah J. Thompson; Mary Elizabeth Lowery, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Lannie Rae Lowery; Jennie G. Pearson, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Sharese D. Pearson; Benita B. Tipton, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Whitney B. Tipton; Dana Holton Jenkins, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Rachel M. Jenkins; and Leon R. Robinson, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Justin A. Robinson

Plaintiff-Intervenor: Charlotte–Mecklenburg Board of Education

Plaintiff-Intervenors: Rafael Penn; Clifton Jones, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Clifton Matthew Jones; and Donna Jenkins Dawson, individually and as Guardian ad Litem of Neisha Shemay Dawson and Tyler Anthony Hough-Jenkins

Defendant: State of North Carolina and State Board of Education

Realigned Defendant: Charlotte–Mecklenburg Board of Education

Status of the parties

Plaintiff Parties: The plaintiff school districts remain as they have since the beginning of the case: Hoke County Schools, Halifax County Schools, Robeson County Schools, Cumberland County Schools, and Vance County Schools. The names of students and guardians have changed over time as students were no longer in the education system.

Rafael Penn; Clifton Jones; et al., Plaintiff-Intervenors: The Penn Intervenors joined the lawsuit in 2005 with claims against the State and Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools for failure to provide a sound basic education in central city and high poverty schools in CMS. The Penn Intervenors remain in the case, although names of individual students and guardians have changed.

Plaintiff Intervenors/Realigned Defendant: The one remaining plaintiff intervenor among school districts is Charlotte Mecklenburg County Schools. It also is a “realigned defendant.” Like other plaintiff intervenors, it has sought to be removed from the case but was not allowed to do so by Judge Manning. As a realigned defendant, Mecklenburg County Schools sought dismissal on December 19, 2019 of the intervening claim by the Penn Intervenors. This motion to dismiss is pending with the court.

State/State Board of Education: The court has dismissed the State Board’s motion to be released from the remedial jurisdiction of the court. The constitutional remedies require state action by the State of North Carolina and the State Board of Education.

General description of the case

In 1994, five poor school systems sued the State, seeking both a declaration that the State had failed to meet its constitutional duties to provide equal educational opportunities for all students and a court-imposed remedy to correct the violation. These school boards for systems in Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeson, and Vance Counties were joined by individual plaintiffs, including Kathleen M. Leandro and her son, Robert A. Leandro, a student in the Hoke County Schools — the first named plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Another group intervened in the lawsuit to assert the failure of the state under the current school funding system to provide adequate educational opportunities to students in relatively large and wealthier systems in the state — boards of educations and students and their parents or guardians from school systems of the City of Asheville and of Buncombe, Wake, Winston-Salem/Forsyth, Charlotte-Mecklenburg, and Durham Counties.

In 1996, the Court of Appeals rejected claims by the plaintiffs and plaintiff-intervenors. In 1997, the North Carolina Supreme Court reversed the Court of Appeals in a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Burley Mitchell, stating, “[w]e conclude that Article I, Section 15 and Article IX, Section 2 of the North Carolina Constitution combine to guarantee every child of this state an opportunity to receive a sound basic education in our public schools.” The Supreme Court agreed with the Court of Appeals in rejecting the plaintiffs’ claim for substantial funding equality, with a dissent from Justice Robert Orr.

The case was remanded to the trial court. Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning, Jr. presided over a lengthy hearing process and issued four memoranda of decisions from October 2000 through May 2001, concluding that the State had failed to provide at-risk students with the opportunity to obtain a sound basic education and ordering a remedy of providing pre-kindergarten to at-risk students. The State appealed and the Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal directly. In 2004, the Supreme Court, in an opinion authored by Justice Robert Orr, affirmed the trial court’s order regarding at-risk students – with some modifications — and reversed in regard to the prekindergarten, finding that the State should have been given the opportunity to propose a constitutional remedy before it was imposed by the court.

Since then, the trial court has held numerous hearings and issued reports, orders, and other memoranda including on performance problems in high schools – including Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, reading, and Halifax County Schools. All of the relatively larger and wealthier school districts that had intervened voluntarily dismissed their claims in 2006, except Charlotte Mecklenburg Board of Education which could not do so as it also was named as a defendant by an additional set of plaintiff-intervenors (the “Penn” intervenors”). Individually named students and their parents also have changed as students have graduated over the twenty-year period of the lawsuit. 

In regard to prekindergarten, the State continued to provide to the court its efforts to expand availability of prekindergarten. When the General Assembly in 2011 modified the program in ways that would limit access to the prekindergarten program, Judge Manning ordered the state not to implement any law or regulation that would deny eligible at-risk children admission to the pre-kindergarten program and “shall provide the quality services of the NCPK to any eligible at risk four year old that applies.” The State appealed the order. In 2012, the General Assembly substantially amended the legislation and the provisions that limited access. The Court of Appeals affirmed Judge Manning’s order in 2012, including the mandate to not deny any eligible “at-risk” four-year-old admission to the pre-kindergarten program. On appeal by the State, the Supreme Court in 2013 reversed. In a per curiam opinion (issued in the name of the court rather than authored or signed by individual justices) the supreme court held that the changes to the legislation by the General Assembly in 2012 made the controversy moot. The Supreme Court vacated the opinion of the Court of Appeals and remanded the case to the Court of Appeals with instructions to vacate the order of the trial court.

While this order was vacated, the State was still obligated to inform the court of its progress in meeting constitutional requirements, including the needs of at-risk students. To address this matter, Judge Manning held hearings on April 8-9, 2015 and ordered the State to provide a “definite plan of action” to comply with constitutional mandates. The State Board of Education submitted a plan on July 1, 2015 and Judge Manning held hearings in regard to this plan. The Plaintiffs disputed the adequacy of this plan. Judge Manning reached the mandatory retirement age just after the hearing. Before beginning retirement, he issued the order for a hearing in November with the intent to return to the bench in a special status available to retired judges.

There was, instead, a delay and shift in plans when health concerns prevented Judge Manning from returning during retirement. Judge Manning’s last order was on March 17, 2015, requiring a “definite plan of action.” On October 7, 2016, Chief Justice Mark Martin reassigned Leandro to Judge W. David Lee. At this time Judge Lee had retired from his superior court term and was serving as an emergency judge in superior court.

Latest action/next steps

In July of 2017, the State Board of Education sought to be released from the remedial jurisdiction of the court as it related to Leandro claims, that is, that the court would not have the authority to issue orders affecting the State Board as a part of remedies to violations of the constitutional right to education. The State Board argued that facts had considerably changed over the course of the litigation and that state and federal legislation met the requirements of a sound, basic education. On March 13, 2018, Judge Lee denied the defendant State Board of Education’s motion. The court made conclusions of law, including that neither the State Board nor State had met their burden of demonstrating substantial compliance with Leandro directives and that the State Board had a significant, non-delegable role in affording the constitutional entitlements.

Meanwhile, the Governor established the Governor’s Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education on July 21, 2017 (Executive Order 10) and revised it on November 15, 2017 (Executive Order 27). This Commission would focus on the three pillars of Leandro — qualified principals, qualified teachers and adequate resources — and would work in conjunction with an independent consultant.

On February 1, 2018, Judge Lee responded to a joint motion by the State defendant and plaintiff parties for case management and the scheduling order, setting in motion the selection and approval of an independent consultant that would provide “detailed, comprehensive, written recommendations for specific actions necessary to achieve sustained compliance with the constitutional mandates.” And on March 7, 2018, (filed March 13, 2018) Judge Lee appointed WestED to serve as the independent consultant based upon the joint recommendation of the State defendant and Plaintiff parties. The State Board of Education was not a part of the joint motion.

WestEd submitted its draft report to the court on June 18, 2019, and a final report on October 4, 2019. This report is referenced by the court as the “WestEd Report” and is a comprehensive document addressing its research and recommendations. The report was maintained as a confidential court document for the parties until it was released on December 10, 2019.

On January 21, 2020, Judge Lee issued findings of fact, conclusions of law, and orders for next steps. Citing heavily from the WestEd report, the court found substantial evidence that despite numerous State initiatives, many children are not receiving a sound, basic education. The court held that it is the “State’s duty to implement the fiscal, programmatic and strategic steps necessary to ensure these seven components are in place and, ultimately, to achieve the outcomes for students required by the Constitution.” All parties agreed to the findings of fact and conclusions of law included in the opinion.

Following the WestEd report, the court expected a remedial state plan to address seven elements:

1. A system of teacher development and recruitment that ensures each classroom is staffed with a high-quality teacher who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.

2. A system of principal development and recruitment that ensures each school is led by a high-quality principal who is supported with early and ongoing professional learning and provided competitive pay.

3. A finance system that provides adequate, equitable, and predictable funding to school districts and, importantly, adequate resources to address the needs of all North Carolina schools and students, especially at-risk-students as defined by the Leandro decisions.

4. An assessment and accountability system that reliably assess multiple measures of student performance against the Leandro standard and provides accountability consistent with the Leandro standard.

5. An assistance and turnaround function that provides necessary support to low-performing schools and districts.

6. A system of early education that provides access to high-quality pre-kindergarten and other early childhood learning opportunities to ensure that all students at-risk of educational failure, regardless of where they live in the State, enter kindergarten on track for school success.

7. An alignment of high school to postsecondary and career expectations, as well as the provision of early postsecondary and workforce learning opportunities, to ensure student readiness to all students in the state.

The order required the parties to report within sixty days on short-term actions that the State would take in 2020 as well as proposed dates for submitting mid-range actions and a comprehensive remedial plan. The State was required to identify specific State actors and institutions that would be responsible for implementing specific components of the plan. The court ordered the parties to include in the mid-range and comprehensive plans the additional resources needed beyond current funding, if any, to complete the actions included in the plan. The WestEd report included recommendations for sequences of actions and investments that could be considered by the parties.

In March 2021, a comprehensive eight-year plan was submitted to the court, building off of the work of the WestEd report as well as recommendations from the Commission on Access to Sound Basic Education.

In June 2021, Judge Lee signed an order that the state must implement that comprehensive plan. As of September 2021, the state still didn’t have a biennium budget passed by the General Assembly and signed by the governor, but neither the House nor Senate proposals came close to funding the first two years of the comprehensive plan. In a September 2021 hearing, Judge Lee set an October 18th date by which the state must have secured the funds needed to implement the comprehensive plan.

At a hearing on October 18th, the judge gave the plaintiffs and defendants in the case until November 8th to give him suggestions on how to hold lawmakers accountable for the comprehensive plan funding.

Updates following initial publication of this article

In November 2021,  Lee ordered the state to transfer about $1.7 billion from general fund to pay for first two years of comprehensive plan.

Also in November, State Controller Linda Combs challenges Lee’s order in the state Court of Appeals

At the end of November, the Court of Appeals ruled that Lee can’t order the transfer of funds.

In December 2021, legislative leaders filed motion to intervene in the case and appeal Judge Lee’s order to the court of appeals. The State Attorney General also appealed Lee’s order to the court of appeals.

In March 2022, the North Carolina Supreme Court agreed to hear the current arguments in the case. However, the justices wanted the case to go back to superior court so that the judge could determine whether the passage of the budget in late 2021 should have any impact on Lee’s order.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul Newby also ordered, at the same time, that Judge David Lee be replaced by Special Superior Court Judge Michael Robinson.

A few days later, Robinson set out a timetable for parties to deliver their takes on what impact the passage of the budget should have on Lee’s order. Two weeks after a hearing, Robinson issued an order on April 26 finding the state underfunded the Leandro Plan by $785 million, but did not order the money to be transferred from the state treasury to state agencies.

Two weeks after a hearing, Robinson issued an order on April 26 finding the state underfunded the Leandro Plan by $785 million, but did not order the money to be transferred from the state treasury to state agencies.

The case went back before the North Carolina Supreme Court on August 31, 2022 for oral arguments. The Supreme Court decided the answer to two questions:

  1. Whether any judge in this case has found a statewide violation of students’ constitutional right to access a sound, basic education; and 
  2. Whether the courts can compel the transfer of $785 million to state agencies as remedy for any violation.

The first question relates to findings by the Supreme Court in Leandro II. Those findings are based on evidence from Hoke County, which had been chosen as the representative district for that trial, and Newby questioned during oral arguments in August whether that means that the ruling in Leandro II applies just to Hoke or to the state as a whole.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court answered yes to both questions and sent the case back down to the trial court so the judge could determine how much money remained to be funded following passage of the short session budget in 2022.

A new judge, James Ammons, took over the trial court portion of the case after Robinson asked to be taken off because of his work load. Additionally, in the new year, the make up of the Supreme Court flipped to Republican following the November 2022 elections.

In the new year, attorneys representing legislative leaders and the state controller (now Nels Roseland) both asked the Supreme Court to reinstate the court of appeals stay of the money transfer. The Court agreed to the controller’s request while it considers his arguments.

Meanwhile, on March 10, Ammons held his first hearing on the case. He determined that his role was solely to calculate how much money remained to be funded in the comprehensive plan following passage of the 2022 budget. He has a hearing on the matter scheduled for March 17.

Additional resources on Leandro

Video | What is Leandro?

Sound Basic Education for All: An Action Plan for North Carolina (WestEd Report)

Executive Summary of WestEd’s Report

WestEd’s supporting reports:

Supplement to the Investment Overview and Sequenced Action Plan in the WestEd Report

Ann McColl

Ann McColl is an attorney practicing in the field of education law since 1991. She currently serves as co-founder and president of the Innovation Project.