School districts sue for fee revenue

More than 30 school districts are suing the state for money they say they are owed from $50 in fees imposed on drivers who are cited and convicted of having “improper equipment.”

A state law directed that money to the prison system – not the school systems.

The 30-district lawsuit follows a recent successful suit over the same issue by the Richmond County Board of Education.

In September, the state Court of Appeals said the fee revenue belongs to the schools, upholding a trial court decision. The rulings relied on wording in the state constitution that says fines collected for violations of state laws go to public schools.

If the new lawsuit, filed this month in Wake Superior Court, is successful, it could bring a bounty to local school districts. According to calculations in an exhibit filed with the lawsuit, the state since 2011 has collected $46.4 million in “improper equipment” fees that should have gone to school districts.

Wake, Durham, Orange, Johnston, Chatham and Charlotte-Mecklenburg boards of education are among the plaintiffs. The suit names state Treasurer Janet Cowell, state Attorney General Roy Cooper, state budget director Lee Roberts, state controller Linda Morrison Combs and Public Safety Secretary Frank Perry as defendants.

Rod Malone, a lawyer representing the school boards, said the suit “is limited to the exact issue decided in the Richmond County case.”

The constitution requires the funds go to school systems, he said, just as speeding fines do.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Cooper’s office, said in an email, “We typically don’t comment on pending litigation.”

According to a post on the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Government blog by Kara Millonzi, an associate professor of law and government, the legislature established the surcharge on people caught driving vehicles with broken parts in 2011 as part of the Justice Reinvestment Act.

The money has been allocated to a state fund to help pay to house people convicted of misdemeanors in county jails.

The legislature changed the law in the budget bill this year to have the $50 charge go instead to support the state court system.

The lawyer for the Richmond Board of Education, George E. Crump III, said the deadline for the state to appeal the Court of Appeals decision has passed. He did not know what the school system had been paid, but expected “the state of North Carolina is going to honor a valid, legal obligation.”

Some of the bigger school districts could be in line to collect $1 million or more, but Malone said he’s telling school districts that they may not be able to recover all the improper equipment revenue collected since 2011 because of a three-year statute of limitations.

Lynn Bonner: 919-829-4821, @Lynn_Bonner