State, not local government, to blame for poor school conditions, Appeals Court rules

The local government in one eastern North Carolina county can’t be held responsible for “serious problems” with chronically underachieving local schools, a state appeals court ruled Tuesday.

Responsibility for Halifax County’s lagging district falls instead on North Carolina’s state legislature and its executive branch, judges argued.

That ruling comes after five students in the county and their parents or legal guardians accused Halifax County commissioners of unequal funding for the county’s three school districts, slighting two districts largely composed of minority students.

It’s a pivotal ruling related to the state’s long-running Leandro case, which began in 1994 when plaintiffs in several low-wealth counties, including Halifax, argued students were not afforded the same chance to succeed as their peers in more affluent North Carolina counties.

In the Leandro case, the court found the state has a constitutional obligation to provide a “sound basic education” to students.

The plaintiffs in Tuesday’s ruling said decisions made by local county commissioners infringed on that right, although two out of three judges found that the local board of commissioners cannot be solely blamed for the districts’ myriad issues with facilities, supplies and performance listed in the case.

Mark Dorosin, an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights who represented the Halifax County plaintiffs, called the decision “disappointing.”

“The court’s ruling in the Halifax case really tries to narrow the scope of the constitutional right to a sound basic education in a way that I don’t think the court that decided the Leandro case intended,” said Dorosin.

Issues in Halifax’s minority-dominated districts include flagging test scores, deteriorating facilities and marked difficulty in hiring quality, experienced teachers—all in contrast with a third, primarily white local school district.

The majority sided with an earlier trial court dismissal in the case, finding “serious problems in the schools in Halifax County, but because this defendant—the Halifax County Board of Commissioners—does not bear the constitutional duty to provide a sound basic education, we affirm the trial court’s order dismissing this action.”

Instead, the court found that responsibility rests with state leaders in the N.C. General Assembly and the executive branch, including Gov. Roy Cooper, the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.

However, one dissenting judge, Chief Judge Linda McGee, wrote in her opinion that local governments have a “role to play” when it comes to the financial backing of the public schools.

Because one judge dissented, the plaintiffs will have the right to appeal their case to the state Supreme Court. Dorosin said Tuesday he would be speaking to his clients in the coming days to discuss further appeal.

Look for more on this pivotal case later this week from Policy Watch.

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