Politics & Government

NC school districts should still get the $730 million they’re owed, judge says

NC School Districts are going back to court

North Carolina school districts have filed a lawsuit to enforce a 10-year old court decision that ordered state leaders to turn over nearly $750 million that was improperly withheld from public schools.
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North Carolina school districts have filed a lawsuit to enforce a 10-year old court decision that ordered state leaders to turn over nearly $750 million that was improperly withheld from public schools.

A judge isn’t letting state leaders off the hook for turning over $730 million that was improperly withheld from North Carolina’s public schools.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Vince Rozier signed an order Wednesday extending a 2008 court decision ordering state leaders to turn over $747.9 million in civil fines that should have been given to public schools over a nine-year period. With only $18 million provided so far, the N.C. School Boards Association and 20 school boards went back to court in August to file a new lawsuit to get the remaining money.

“We are pleased that the court extended the judgment against the state,” Billy Griffin, president of NCSBA and chairman of the Jones County school board, said in a news release. “These funds are vitally important to public schools across the state because there is certainly no shortage of needs for technology.”

Under the terms of the 2008 court order, the money has to be used for school technology. School leaders say the need for new technology is great based on how many districts don’t have the money budgeted to keep updating their student mobile devices.

The new order still doesn’t include a way to legally enforce the decision. School leaders have tried for years to reach a deal with state leaders to provide the money.

But school leaders expressed optimism Wednesday that the money will be provided. They pointed to the bill filed by House Speaker Tim Moore for a $1.9 billion statewide school construction bond referendum. The bond would include money for school technology to help satisfy the court decision.

“NCSBA continues to stress to the General Assembly the need to develop a payment structure to return the funds due to the public school students of this state for technology,” Leanne Winner, NCSBA director of governmental relations, said in a press release. “We are encouraged by the inclusion in Speaker Moore’s bond proposal that any funds used for technology will be credited against the judgment.

“This is the first of several steps necessary to address the judgment for several years.”

The state Constitution requires money from fines levied by the state go to public schools. But it was unclear whether it only applied to criminal fines until 1996, when the state Supreme Court issued a ruling extending it to civil fines as well.

In 1997, state lawmakers created a fund to collect money from civil fines and forfeitures that would be turned over to schools for acquiring technology. But the state excluded penalties levied for not paying state taxes, fines paid for overweight trucks and parking tickets issued at state universities.

In 1998, NCSBA and several school boards, including Wake and Johnston counties, filed a lawsuit to get the fine money that had been excluded.

In 2005, the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of the school districts and sent the case back to a lower court to determine how much money from 1996 to 2005 was owed.

Wake County Superior Court Judge Howard Manning issued his order in August 2008. The new lawsuit was filed because Manning’s order was set to expire.

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T. Keung Hui has covered K-12 education for the News & Observer since 1999, helping parents, students, school employees and the community understand the vital role education plays in North Carolina. His primary focus is Wake County, but he also covers statewide education issues.
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