Byline: Matt Chaney
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...