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NCSBA, districts, renew lawsuit against state over money owed to public schools

The North Carolina School Boards Association (NCSBA) announced the filing of a lawsuit today in conjunction with 20 school boards to recover almost $730 million in money that should be going to North Carolina school districts to pay for technology. The lawsuit was announced at George Watts Montessori Magnet School in Durham.

A 2008 court decision said the state owed the public schools almost $750 million in civil penalties collected by state agencies. Since the decision, the state’s public schools have only received about $18 million. 

“This lawsuit…is not about school boards,” said NCSBA President Minnie Forte-Brown. “So don’t think it’s about us. It’s about students and their future.” 

The crux of the issue revolves around the time period between 1996 and 2005, when the state held back money that the courts later said was owed to the state’s public schools under the state constitution. While schools have been receiving the money they’re owed since then, districts are still trying to collect on money owed prior to 2005. 

Leanne Winner, director of government relations for NCSBA, said her group and others have tried to work with the legislature to get the money.

“We have repeatedly gone to members of the General Assembly over the years and asked for study commissions, tried to pull groups together, but we have not been able to resolve this,” she said. 

Bills have been filed proposing ways to recover the money and, at one point, a senator and representative were meeting regularly to try to come up with a solution, she said, but to no avail. For a while, Winner said the plaintiffs were content to wait. 

“I would say the biggest stumbling block was in 2008 when the judgement came down, we went straight into a significant recession in this state,” she said, adding later, “We were willing to be patient and understand the other constraints on the state at that time.” 

But the state came out of the recession, and the money still didn’t flow, she said. In March, Winner sent a letter to House Speaker Rep. Tim Moore, R-Cleveland, and President Pro Tempore Phil Berger, R-Rockingham, trying to reach a settlement. She said she heard no response. 

Rod Malone, an attorney with Tharrington Smith representing the plaintiffs, said nobody wanted to move forward with the lawsuit. But the original judgement was only valid for 10 years, and another lawsuit needed to be filed to keep it alive. 

Brown said the plaintiffs are open to working with state leaders to find a resolution. 

“We’re very open to having discussions with the legislature,” she said. She also implied the plaintiffs might settle for less than the full amount owed. “We are certainly conscious of the budgetary restraints.”

Winner added that the plaintiffs understand the money wouldn’t necessarily be paid all at once, either.

Joseph Kyzer, spokesperson for Moore, responded in an email to the lawsuit, noting how much money the General Assembly under Republican leadership has given to the state’s public schools. 

“The judgment was reached against Democrat lawmakers over a decade ago as they were slashing education spending by over $700 million in two years, furloughing teachers and cutting their pay, but since that time Republican leaders in the state General Assembly made schools their top priority by doubling K-12’s share of new state spending and increasing total public education appropriations by nearly $3 billion a year,” he wrote.

Bill D’Elia, spokesperson for Berger, also responded to the lawsuit via email and said Republicans have been good to public education. 

“We have not seen the filing yet and will need time to review it. But we agree that Democrats broke their promises to support public education when they were last in charge of the legislature — including by freezing teacher pay, furloughing teachers and looting public school funds to cover budget deficits created by their failed tax and spend policies — and that’s why voters rejected them in 2010. Since then, Republicans elected to lead the General Assembly have increased annual funding for public education by nearly $3 billion,” he wrote. 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.