Courts & the Law, Education, News

N.C. Supreme Court to hear arguments in pivotal Halifax County school case Monday

Mark Dorosin, attorney for the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights

A potentially precedent-setting legal case challenging Halifax County commissioners over decrepit school facilities will go before the state Supreme Court Monday.

Oral arguments will be heard in Silver, et al v. the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which began in 2015 when parents and community members in the eastern North Carolina county claimed the maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the relatively small county created a system of haves and have-nots.

It’s a pivotal court case because it may determine who holds the blame for inequality in the local districts—local boards or the state. Historically, the state funds K-12 operations while local governments are responsible for infrastructure.

Thus far, courts have held that it’s the state that’s responsible for the conditions in some Halifax County schools.

Halifax schools are also at the center of the long-running Leandro court case, which found that the state needed to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Mark Dorosin with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights is lead counsel in the Silver case.

A Policy Watch report last year detailed the claims made against county commissioners.

From last year’s report:

Crumbling ceilings. Failing air conditioning and heating systems. Broken down school buses. Mold infestations. Rodents scurrying through the hallways. Students forced to traipse over sewage from flooded toilets. Dismal academic performance year in and year out.

These are just some of the complaints parents are leveling in court against local government leaders in rural Halifax County, home to one of North Carolina’s most chronically under-performing public school districts and a key player in the state’s 23-year-old Leandro case over equity in school funding.

Yet a panel of North Carolina appeals court judges ruled this week that it’s the state government, and not the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, that’s responsible for the “serious problems” in the eastern North Carolina county.

“It’s disappointing,” says Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the UNC Center for Civil Rights, which represented five Halifax students and their parents or legal guardians in this pivotal case.

It’s a damaging, but perhaps not decisive, setback for Dorosin’s clients, who hoped the courts would force county commissioners in Halifax to reconstruct three small, racially segregated school districts in the county that they blame for fundamental inequities in Halifax school funding.

Reached Tuesday, Brenda Sledge, one of those Halifax parents, said she was “shocked” by the decision.

Their case, Dorosin explains, targets, among other things, the county’s system of collecting and distributing local sales and use taxes, which they say has long favored one district more than others, a district composed of mostly white students.

Additionally, the poor state of some local school facilities—which, in North Carolina, are traditionally funded by local governments and not the state—contributes to a system that deprives some of a “sound basic education,” the legal benchmark set decades ago by the N.C. Supreme Court’s landmark Leandro decision.

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