It’s the responsibility of the state, and not local counties, to preserve the state’s constitutional right to a public education, the North Carolina Supreme Court has ruled unanimously in the latest in a series of lawsuits concerning how the state’s public schools are funded.
The court held that county commissioners cannot be sued for failing to adequately fund local public schools, citing its previous landmark decisions in Leandro I and Leandro II. The justices said that county boards of commissioners are separate entities from the state, and even though the state may delegate responsibilities for school funding, this doesn’t necessarily mean that the counties must fund schools.
The case originated in Halifax County, where a group of students claim that their rights to a sound basic education are being violated. The students alleged that the Halifax County Board of Commissioners caused this violation by supporting a system in which three separate school systems exist in the same county, and which prevents one of the school systems, Halifax County Public Schools, from receiving any county sales tax revenue.
The students claim that the deficiency in funding has resulted in a disparity in facilities, a deficiency in textbooks and basic materials, and an inability to provide other curricular and extracurricular opportunities, which has, in turn, caused disparities in student performance on end-of-course exams and college entrance tests.
In 2016 Superior Court Judge Russell Duke granted the board of commissioners’ motion to dismiss, saying there was no provision in the state constitution requiring a board of county commissioners to implement and maintain a school system. A divided Court of Appeals panel affirmed the ruling in 2017.
Justice Barbara Jackson, writing for the Supreme Court, said it’s clear that no constitutional provision requires a board of commissioners to provide for “any rights relating to education.”
“This leaves the State, and the State alone, with the power to create and maintain a system of public education, which includes effectuating the right to a sound basic education,” Jackson said, explaining that the use of the word “may” when describing the General Assembly’s ability to assign financial duties to local governments means that such an action is not mandatory.
Ultimately, Jackson said, it is up to the state to correct actions or inactions of local government that lead to inadequate school funding. Therefore, the only remedies available are for the local school board to file an action against the county board of commissioners or for the students to sue the state itself.
Neil Yarborough of Yarborough, Winters & Neville in Fayetteville and Glynn Rollins of Roanoke Rapids represented the county board of commissioners. Yarborough said that the court’s decision closes a loop that began with the first Leandro case, in which he served as counsel for the defense.
“This case reemphasized that it is not the county’s role [to provide for public education], because it’s the state’s duty,” Yarborough said. “[The] plaintiffs pled that this was based on the Leandro cases, but this opinion closes that avenue.”
Yarborough also suggested that the court’s opinion might have further-reaching implications about responsibilities delegated by the state to local governments outside of education.
“There are many roles that the state delegates to the counties. There are many collaborative roles that counties serve with the state,” Yarborough said. “But this makes clear that in certain instances the state is the state and the counties are the counties.”
Mark Doros and Elizabeth Haddix of the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights in Carrboro represented the students in the case. Doros said his clients are disappointed by the ruling.
“It was our belief that county commissioners are charged with specific educational responsibilities by the state legislature, and they haven’t fulfilled these responsibilities,” Doros said. “The counties must provide funding for schools. This decision says that if schools do this inadequately, there’s no recourse.”
Doros said that he and Haddix are meeting with clients later this month to discuss future options, but he confirmed that if the lawsuit is to continue, it will have to be re-filed against the state.
“It’s not an abstract question of whether the General Assembly will assign duties, they already have,” Doros said. “And given that they have, how can they not be required to fulfill those duties consistent with the constitution?”
The 24-page decision is Silver v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners (Lawyers Weekly No. 010-103-18.) The full text of the opinion is available online at nclawyersweekly.com.
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