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N.C. Supreme Court weighs who’s to blame for “entrenched inequities” in Halifax County schools

Supreme Court Justice Michael Morgan

Before the N.C. Supreme Court Monday, attorneys for both Halifax County and local parents seemed to agree on the lackluster state of school funding in the rural North Carolina county. In question, however, is who’s to blame for the so-called “entrenched inequities.”

The state’s highest court heard oral arguments in the crucial case of Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners, which spun out of longstanding complaints of funding disparities and crumbling facilities in the eastern North Carolina county.

Those complaints were first heard in the state’s long-running Leandro case, which found the state had a responsibility to provide a “sound, basic education” to all children, regardless of locale.

Yet plaintiffs in the Silver case say the continued operation of three Halifax school districts—two with majority Black enrollment and one with majority white enrollment—exacerbates funding inequalities in the relatively low-income county.  Some—including State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey—have argued the small county would be best served by a single school system, although local officials have been ardently opposed to any mergers.

Parents in the North Carolina county say they want the courts to force a merger of the districts, although lower courts thus far have ruled against them, finding instead that, with the State Board of Education having final say over local district mergers, it’s the state that’s responsible.

But attorneys for the Halifax parents point out the predominantly white district has received millions more in local funding from tax revenues, leading to newer buildings, more supplies, and, ultimately, better academic performance.

Mark Dorosin

“This case concerns what the county commission has failed to do,” said Mark Dorosin, lead counsel for the plaintiffs and an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights.

However, Justice Paul Newby pressed Dorosin to explain the difference between the Silver case and the two Leandro rulings, in which the court ultimately pointed the finger at the state and the General Assembly for funding disparities.

Dorosin argued that, while prior courts found the state has a constitutional obligation to ensure an education for all, local county commissioners too have a responsibility to fund schools fairly.

The state historically funds day-to-day operations in K-12 schools, but local county commissions are charged with funding the construction and maintenance of school facilities.

He said the funding disparities between the segregated school systems yielded failing facilities in the majority Black districts, a factor that attorneys say contributed to the achievement gaps.

“Our education system recognizes that there are shared responsibilities,” Dorosin added.

Attorneys for the county made their arguments that the court rulings in the Leandro case point to the state’s culpability, not the county commissioners.

“If the state of North Carolina was doing what it was supposed to do, we wouldn’t be here today,” said Garris Neil Yarborough, a Fayetteville attorney hired by the county.

The day’s arguments included vigorous questioning from Justice Michael Morgan, who asked what, if anything, county commissioners are responsible for when it comes to local schools.

Garris Neil Yarborough

The answer, resoundingly, was funding. “There’s only one thing county commissioners do with respect to education and that’s write a check,” argued Glynn Rollins Jr., attorney for the Halifax County board.

Yarborough, meanwhile, suggested that a ruling against the county would be a “setback” to ongoing compliance with the Leandro case because it may “diffuse” responsibility for school inequalities among North Carolina’s 100 counties, an assertion that Dorosin characterized as a “misstatement.”

N.C. Supreme Court justices are expected to rule on the Silver case in the coming months.

While the county wrestles with the Silver case, North Carolina continues to grapple with the Leandro filings. Indeed, a court-appointed consultant is expected to work this year with a task force appointed by Gov. Roy Cooper to prepare solutions for the underfunded, rural counties.

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