Courts & the Law, News

Parents, advocates appeal key Halifax County school funding case

Parents and advocates in one eastern North Carolina county will appeal a pivotal ruling last month that held a local county board cannot be blamed for the run-down state of area schools.

As Policy Watch reported last month, plaintiffs in the Silver et al v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners case were likely to take their argument to the state’s highest court.

Critics of the local board said the continued operation of three racially distinct school systems in the rural county exacerbated the situation for some in the county’s long-struggling public schools, which are at the heart of a decades-old North Carolina case on equity in school funding.

But a divided panel of judges instead ruled that it’s the state, and not local commissioners, that are responsible for the schools, which, according to the legal complaint, are in dire need of maintenance.

The UNC Center for Civil Rights, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Latham & Watkins LLP represent the plaintiffs in this case, which includes parents and guardians of Halifax schoolchildren, as well as the Halifax-based Coalition for Education and Economic Security and the Halifax branch of the NAACP.

From a statement Wednesday:

“This case seeks to hold county officials accountable for improving the indisputably substandard education that students of Halifax County have been subject to for far too long,” stated Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “These students, who are disproportionately African American and poor, have been denied their right to a sound, basic education as guaranteed by the North Carolina Constitution. We hope and expect that the North Carolina Supreme Court will recognize the rights of our clients to sue the county.”

Rebecca Copeland, President of CEES, said “It makes no sense that an arm of the State—the Board of County Commissioners— cannot be made to follow the North Carolina Constitution. We are confident that the highest court of our state will put us back on the right path.”

The ongoing Halifax case comes after more than two decades of legal wrangling over the state’s seminal Leandro case, which fielded complaints of basic public school funding inequities between North Carolina’s poor and wealthy counties.

Public school operations are mostly funded by state government, while local governments are largely charged with building and maintaining schools. However, critics point out limited tax bases in North Carolina’s poorest counties leave them at a marked disadvantage when it comes to capital needs and operations not fully funded by the state.

Policy Watch will continue to track this important case as it develops.

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