ATLANTA -- Five North Carolina school districts are suing the state to force an end to the financial gap between rich and poor districts.
The 29-page suit, filed May 25 in Halifax County Superior Court by the school boards of Cumberland, Halifax, Hoke, Robeston, and Vance counties, names North Carolina and the State Board of Education as defendants. The defendants have 30 days to respond.
The five school districts contend that the state constitution does not allow rich districts to have more money to spend on schools than poor districts do.
"We believe that the state's education funding is constitutionally inadequate because it takes insufficient account of the wealth differences between school districts," Robert H. Tiller, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said yesterday.
The state constitution mandates "a general and uniform system of free public schools" where "equal opportunities should be provided for all students."
The suit also alleges violations of state laws that call for minimum standards of instruction.
But the suit does not specify how much money would be needed to provide equitable funding, or what mechanism should raise the money.
"We have asked the courts to give us a declaratory judgment that the public education system in the state is unconstitutional," Tiller said. "We would anticipate that the remedy would be worked out by the legislature."
North Carolina now joins over 30 other states where local school districts have filed lawsuits challenging school funding formulas.
Most recently two states in the South have been drawn into the fray. In South Carolina last November, a group of 29 poorer school districts sued the state challenging inequitable funding. And in April, 43 of Florida's 67 school districts sued state officials, including Gov. Lawton Chiles, claiming that education funding is so deficient that it violates the state's constitution.
North Carolina had hoped to avoid such a lawsuit by adopting in 1985 a program that the state calls the Basic Education Plan.
Under the plan, the state uses a formula based on school enrollment to provide school districts with about $3 billion, or about two-thirds of the money they need to operate. The remainder comes from county government or special tax districts -- mostly through property taxes. Because of this, poorer districts cannot provide the same amount of money overall per pupil. Local government must finance capital expenditures themselves.
The lawsuit also comes at a time when the legislature is considering a number of bills that would help equalize spending between richer and poorer schools. One bill would give the state's Basic Education Plan an additional $315 million a year. Gov. Jim Hunt has asked for $10 million in additions.
However, in 1993 that state's department of public instruction said $5.6 billion would be required to address school construction needs.
In a written statement, Hunt said he supported the goals of the suit. "I have always been committed to the principle that every student in North Carolina should have equal educational opportunities," he said. The suit has "raised a number of important issues that the courts must scrutinize carefully."
Attorney General Mike Easely said that he would recommend settlement.
"I believe the state and the General Assembly should seek an opportunity to resolve this matter without involving more lawyers and more court time and more costs," Easely said in a statement.
North Carolina's department of public instruction records a wide disparity in local school funding. At the top is Chapel Hill's school board, which provides $2,229 per pupil in local funding, compared with $509 for Halifax County and $394 for Hoke County.
According to the American Bar Association, school districts in 32 states have filed lawsuits charging inadequate school funding. Last year, the association said, state courts in Alabama, Louisiana, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Tennessee ruled against their state's school funding formulas.