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Constitutional question looming over Leandro school-funding case

RALEIGH — Rep. Craig Horn, R-Union, said he wouldn’t be surprised if a judge orders the state to spend more on education.

But it could spark a constitutional crisis.

“The constitution of North Carolina is very clear as to who has the authority to appropriate money,” Horn said. “I don’t know that it is constitutional for a court to direct the state to appropriate a specific amount of money.”

Not that it hasn’t happened.

In Kansas, the courts pushed for more education funding and eventually got it. North Carolina could face a similar fate with Leandro.

Kansas is embroiled in its own longstanding, complex education funding lawsuit. Four school districts sued the state in 2010 over what they considered insufficient funding for education.

The case has lasted several years, and only recently has the state come into compliance with the court’s order to adequately fund education. The Kansas Supreme Court ruled the state was finally spending enough after the Kansas Legislature passed a law in April adding some $90 million more a year to education funding.

But the Kansas Supreme Court is keeping the lawsuit alive to continuously monitor the state and ensure it doesn’t back down on funding promises.

In North Carolina, a parallel story is unfolding.

As the state awaits the latest development in the long-running Leandro case, some have begun to speculate what the court may do next to bring education into compliance with the rulings.

One possible outcome sees presiding Judge David Lee issuing an order calling for the General Assembly to spend more on education funding.

Jeanette Doran, president of the N.C. Institute for Constitutional Law, said such a court order would violate separation of powers. Section 6 of the N.C. Constitution says that “the legislative, executive, and supreme judicial powers of the State government shall be forever separate and distinct from each other.”

The legislative branch makes laws and appropriates money, while the executive branch enforces the law. The judicial branch interprets laws to ensure constitutionality.

“It would be judicial overreach for a judge to order the General Assembly to spend a certain amount,” Doran said. “The General Assembly is in charge of appropriations.”

Horn said North Carolina has made progress in education but there’s still work to be done. He also said lawmakers could sue over the constitutional issue, but he thinks the General Assembly is tired of litigation.

Nevertheless, if lawmakers don’t sue, someone else will, Doran said.

Leandro dates to 1994, when five rural school districts sued the state, arguing they couldn’t raise enough tax revenue locally to provide an education for their students on par with schools in wealthier districts. In 1997, the state Supreme Court held that every North Carolina child has a right to “a sound, basic education” under the state constitution. In 2004, the court ruled the state failed to live up to the previous ruling.

Decades later, the matter remains unresolved.

To break the logjam, the parties in the case agreed to commission an independent third party to develop recommendations for state compliance with the Leandro standards. WestEd, a California-based education consulting company, got the job.

On June 17, WestEd turned its report over to Lee. For now, the report is confidential as Lee reviews its contents for his anticipated court order. What the court order will entail is still a mystery, but a look at how a similar saga played out in Kansas may offer some clues.

Like North Carolina, WestEd played a role in Kansas’ education funding dispute. The Kansas legislature hired WestEd to produce a report estimating “the minimum spending required to reduce a given outcome within a given educational environment.”

WestEd’s Kansas report proposed funding scenarios ranging from $450 million to $2 billion a year. Kansas lawmakers were divided when the report dropped.

“There will be major losers at the end of this,” Kansas Senate President Susan Wagle, a Republican, said, “and that will be either the Kansas taxpayers or other state services whose funding stream will be cut.”

Court orders involving money will take dollars from other programs and policy priorities, said Andy Taylor, a political professor at N.C. State University.

“The amount of money available is finite. If the courts are grabbing parts of it and telling the government where to spend it, that means, in theory at least, that other parts of the budget are going to lose out,” Taylor said.

Doran said she thinks Lee would consider the separation of powers issue when crafting his court order.

Yet until the WestEd report is unsealed and Lee issues his ruling, all political analysts can do is speculate. What is certain is that Lee will issue a court order. If it calls for the General Assembly to raise education funding to a set amount, then some will cry foul.

Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University, isn’t one of those people.

“If this were to happen, there would absolutely be people who think this is judicial overreach and legislating from the bench, but I don’t see it as a separation of powers violation,” Cooper said. “I think it would be a political question as to how much is too much.”

Many political disputes in North Carolina aren’t really about policy differences, but rather disagreements over who’s behind the wheel, Cooper said.

“Who controls the levers of power is one of the most salient issues of politics in North Carolina,” Cooper said.

Throughout history, courts have ordered the legislature to act, Taylor said.

“There have been activist courts that have engaged in this kind of policy making at the state level for a long time,” Taylor said. “This happens a lot. A lot of people who are conscious of separation of powers issues sometimes are uncomfortable with it.”

Taylor said judicial activism has happened frequently in public education matters regarding funding and school assignments. While the courts tend not to specify from where the money comes, calling for set amounts is, effectively, legislating from the bench, Taylor said.

“Courts across the country have intervened in this way, not only ruling that some kind of policy is wrong and illegal, but then compelling policy makers to do something about it, and do something specific about it,” Taylor said.

More than a day off: Crowd gathers at Town Common to pay tribute to veterans

For some people Veterans Day means getting a good deal on furniture or a car because of a holiday sale.

The keynote speaker at Greenville’s Veterans Day ceremony on Monday said he was thankful that the audience in front of him knew the day was about much more than that.

“Today is more than a day off,” Lieutenant General Anthony Crutchfield said, addressing a crowd of more than 100 people who gathered at 11 a.m. at the Pitt County Veterans Memorial at the Town Common. The event was a collaboration of the City of Greenville and the Pitt County Veterans Council.

Crutchfield retired after 35 years of service in the Army. His career included serving as a commander in Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. Today he is Boeing’s vice president for Army Systems Defense, Space and Security Government Operations in Arlington, Va.

Crutchfield reminded the audience that he was one of thousands of people standing in locations all over the world to honor America’s veterans.

“It is a special day,” he said. “It’s one that is set aside to remind us and think about the sacrifices and the service of our veterans, the men and women who selflessly are devoted to something greater than themselves — the United States of America.

“Indeed, this day helps us focus our attention on the key purpose of Veterans Day, a celebration to honor American veterans for their patriotism, for their love of country and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good,” Crutchfield said.

He said he was happy to see children in the audience and thanked parents for bringing them to the ceremony.

“It shows me that you’re teaching them the value of men and women who serve something greater than themselves,” Crutchfield said.

Akemi Hill of Greenville was one of those parents who had brought her children. Following the program, she explained why she had brought Makoto, 7, and Megumi, 4.

Hill comes from a military family, she said. Her father, sister and her sister’s husband all were in the Marine Corps. She also has uncles who were in the service.

“I just want to make sure that (my children) know the importance of the veterans,” she said.

Hill said she wants her children to realize that there are people of all ages who are making a sacrifice.

The program also included the singing of the national anthem, the performance of an original song called “The American Pledge” composed after the events of 9/11 by local musician Tim Ottinger and remarks by U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy and Greenville Mayor P.J. Connelly.

Savannah Barrett, a veteran of the U.S. Army Reserve who attended the event, said the whole program was meaningful to her.

“Any time that anyone gets up and talks about the sacrifices that men and women make during a war, that’s impressive,” she said.

“Just being able to see service men and women honored — that’s the big thing,” said Barrett, who is originally from Bertie County and now lives in Greenville.

Barrett served for 34 years in the Army Reserve, including two deployments to Saudi Arabia — one for the Persian Gulf War and one for Operation Iraqi Freedom where she was with the 398th Quarter Master Supply Company.

While Memorial Day is a time for remembering and honoring the many people who made the ultimate sacrifice for the country, Veterans Day is about expressing appreciation to those who are living, she said.

“They’re still able to feel that appreciation. That’s the big thing (about) Veterans Day,” Barrett said.

In addition to listening to speakers and music, the event offered an opportunity for veterans to celebrate with one another.

James Anderson, a Vietnam vet from Greenville, said he enjoyed the fellowship of being with other veterans. Anderson said he is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Post 272 of Greenville and six members of that group attended the ceremony.

Anderson said he was a K-9 handler in the Air Force, serving from 1967-68 during the Tet Offensive.

Crutchfield also addressed the ties that bind veterans together in his speech.

“For as long as we’ve been in the United States we’ve had veterans,” Crutchfield said.

“Our history is filled with their brave actions and quiet courage,” he said. “Faced with new challenges, today’s veterans are really no different than those of our past. They have the same selfless service, they have the same (sense of) country over self that binds veterans together all throughout the decades.

“Service before self is why we owe all our veterans a debt of gratitude —yesterday, today and tomorrow.”

Karen Eckert can be reached at 252-329-9565 or at keckert@reflector.com.