Court of Appeals rules on two lawsuits over education challenges

By: Lindsay Marchello - Carolina Journal

RALEIGH — The N.C. Court of Appeals has ruled on two cases concerning public school education, the state and local government agencies that oversee it, and what responsibilities are outlined in the state constitution.

Chief Judge Linda McGee and Judge Lucy Inman on Tuesday ruled in favor of the state and the Rules Review Commission in North Carolina State Board of Education v. The State of North Carolina. Judge John Tyson dissented.

The General Assembly created the Rules Review Commission in 1986 requiring all state agencies to send policies to the commission for review and approval. It wasn’t until 2014 that the State Board of Education took issue with the rule and argued it wasn’t constitutionally bound to submit the policies. It also argued the review process violated the separation of powers provision in the N.C. constitution.

A lower court in July 2015 ruled in favor of the board, allowing it to suspend sending policies, but the appellate court decision reverses the trial court’s order. Once again the board must submit policies to the commission before enacting them.

The appellate court ruled the RRC has the authority to review and approve policies from the state education board without violating the separation of powers provision.

Tyson disagreed with his fellow judges and argued the commission interfered with the board’s ability to do its job and isn’t constitutionally empowered to enact education policy.

“The RRC review process has delayed and frustrated the State Board in accomplishing its constitutionally mandated mission,” Tyson wrote in his dissent. He argued the state constitution gives the power to administer and supervise public education to SBE and not to the RRC, and for that reason the appeal should be denied.

Because of the split ruling, the state Supreme Court is required to hear the case if the board appeals the appellate court’s decision.

SBE chairman Bill Cobey said the board and its attorneys are reviewing their options.

“As a result of Judge John Tyson’s dissenting opinion in the Board’s favor, there is an automatic right of appeal to the North Carolina. Supreme Court. That development is positive, because this case is critically important to whether the Board can fulfill its 150-year-old duty to supervise, administer, and make rules for the benefit of our public schools,” Cobey wrote in a statement. “As both the dissenting opinion and the trial court concluded, this is what the plain language of the North Carolina Constitution requires.”

In a ruling in a case between some Halifax County families and the Halifax Board of County Commissioners, the appellate court granted a motion to dismiss.

Coalition for Education and Economic Security and the Halifax County branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People joined the families in a lawsuit against the county. The lawsuit involved what they argue is “an inefficient three-district system that divides its children along racial lines into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ school districts.”

The plaintiffs say the Halifax Board of County Commissioners is constitutionally required to provide a sound basic education as outlined by the state Supreme Court in the landmark Leandro case, but the commissioners failed to meet the court mandate.

Inadequate funding, a lack of quality teachers, and subpar learning environments were just a few problems raised by the plaintiffs, who argued the Halifax Board of County Commissioners is responsible for resolving them to ensure a quality education.

Inman and Judge Donna Stroud ruled against the plaintiffs and granted the motion to dismiss. McGee dissented.

“Leandro I and Leandro II determined the correct parties and the entities legally responsible for providing a sound basic education under the North Carolina Constitution; county commissioners were not included as parties in either case,” the court ruled.

The court told the plaintiffs they should have sought a resolution through the ongoing Leandro litigation, not by suing the county commissioners. Furthermore, the court explained that if an education board disagrees with how the county appropriates funds it should take steps for mediation — or litigation if mediation fails to resolve the issue.

McGee disagreed with the court’s decision and argued in favor of reversing a lower court’s ruling to dismiss the lawsuit. “I would hold that plaintiffs have stated a claim upon which relief may be granted, to the extent that their complaint alleges that the schoolchildren are unable to receive a sound basic public education, and that inability is a result of the Board’s inadequate funding of buildings, supplies, and other resources, responsibility for which was assigned to the Board by the General Assembly,” McGee wrote in her dissent.

The N.C. Court of Appeals made clear with its ruling that counties by themselves aren’t responsible for upholding the Leandro standard. The responsibility lies with the state and not with local officials.

Lindsay Marchello

Carolina Journal