Legislative leaders said Tuesday there's not enough extra cash on hand to pay $747.9 million a Wake County judge says must go to N.C. public schools.
As a result, the legal victory that caps a decade-old court battle may result in schools getting no new money after all.
Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning has ordered the state to turn over civil fines that were illegally withheld from the schools for more than nine years. In the order issued Friday, Manning left it to the General Assembly to decide where to come up with the money and over what period.
It's shaping up as a hollow victory. Instead of coming up with an infusion of fresh revenue, legislators say they'll comply with Manning's order by tapping money already earmarked for secondary education.
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“Everybody assumed from the beginning that it would come out of the state's education budget,” House Speaker Joe Hackney, a Chapel Hill Democrat, said Tuesday. “We really don't have $700 million in new money.”
Senate Majority Leader Tony Rand, a Fayetteville Democrat, said it's too soon to say just how much of the money Manning awarded to public schools would come from existing education money. He also warned the sour economy means there isn't much extra money lying around.
A spokesman for Gov. Mike Easley's office said the court order was an issue for the General Assembly to tackle.
That's not the reaction the school officials wanted to hear.
“I hope they don't choose to go that route,” said Leanne Winner, lobbyist for the N.C. School Boards Association, one of the groups that sued the state. “It's money they should have been (giving) to the schools all along.”
Winner said she hopes the school groups can negotiate an infusion of money stretched across several years.
Manning had delayed issuing the order in the hope of a settlement. He noted that the school districts had offered to settle for a smaller amount.
With no resolution in sight, Manning said he had to issue the court order. He stressed that he has no authority to tell the state how to come up with the money.
“The remaining chapter in this case, at least at this point, is in the hands of the General Assembly,” Manning wrote.