HAMLET — The N.C. Supreme Court has dismissed the Richmond County Board of Education’s contention that the state owes it $272,300 mis-spent on something other than schools.
The dismissal essentially upholds a decision by the N.C. Court of Appeals in July, in which the court ruled that the state constitution barred the judicial branch of government from telling the legislative branch what to do.
That decision, in turn, reversed a previous Superior Court order that said the legislature should give the School Board what it was owed.
“The Supreme Court dismissed the appeal on the basis that there was a lack of a substantial constitutional question,” schools’ attorney George Crump III said Thursday of the decision dated March 13. “(But) I remain convinced that the question is a substantial constitutional question.”
That question is whether state officials should have to pay a county school board for mis-spending money the law says should have gone to local schools.
“I am disappointed that the Supreme Court does not consider payment of $272,300.00 owed to the Richmond County Board of Education a substantial constitutional question,” Crump said.
But he expressed gratitude to the School Board for “pursuing this case and establishing that the 2011 law appropriating improper-equipment violation fees to county jail funds is unconstitutional.”
School Board Chair Wiley Mabe was less restrained.
“The money belongs to the school system … for the use of the children,” he said. “It’s a shame that the General Assembly and the governor want to play keep-away from children.”
Mabe said he did not know how much the School Board had paid to pursue the case. Several districts will share the cost, he said.
The dispute concerns a 2011 legislative decision to create a $50 fine for traffic violations and use the money to pay counties to house misdemeanor offenders in their jails rather than in state prisons.
The law ran afoul of the state constitution, which says the “clear proceeds” of all fines, penalties and forfeitures collected for breaking the law belong to counties and must be used only to maintain public schools. Such fines no longer are assessed.
The School Board’s case began when Crump represented a client facing a fine and learned that the money he paid to satisfy it would go to the state instead of county schools.
The board sued, with a list of defendants including the state treasurer, controller and budget director, as well as now-Gov. Roy Cooper — attorney general at the time — all in their official capacities as officers of the state.
In May 2012, a judge in Wake County Superior Court ruled that Richmond County Schools should get the fines. The state appealed, but the ruling was upheld in 2015.
Then the appeals court struck down the repayment provision of the ruling.
“When the courts enter a judgment against the state, and no funds already are available to satisfy that judgment, the judicial branch has no power to order state officials to draw money from the state treasury to satisfy it,” appellate Judge Richard Dietz wrote.
Immediately after the appeals court refused to see thing Crump’s way, Crump said he would file an appeal because of the “significant jurisprudence value” of the case, which also affects nearly three dozen other districts with similar claims.
The key issue, Crump said then, is that “there is no case in the history of North Carolina that states that a judgment … is unenforceable.” Besides, he said, “the state has ample revenue to pay this money.”
In its ruling, the appellate court also suggested that the School Board go to the legislature if it wanted to go “reaching into the public purse” because the courts could not.
Both state Rep. Ken Goodman and state Sen. Tom McInnis filed bills seeking repayment from their brethren in the legislature. Neither effort made it out of committee and onto the floor, with Goodman quipping, that “to say it died in committee was to say it was ever alive.”
Goodman, D-Richmond, and McInnis, R-Richmond, served on the School Board together before running for the legislature. Goodman’s wife, Cindy, is the current schools superintendent.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]