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State Supreme Court: Sound education a state responsibility

Last week, the State Supreme Court held in a precedent-setting decision that county boards of commissioners have no responsibility under the state constitution to ensure children in North Carolina have an opportunity to receive a sound basic education as spelled out in Leandro v. State, a landmark ruling that found the state needs to do more to equalize school funding between wealthy and poor counties.

Instead, the Court ruled that citizens must take up such grievances with the state, which has “ultimate responsibility” to “ameliorate the errors” of inequality in local districts.

Mark Dorosin

“The local elected officials who are charged by the legislature with a very clear list of educational responsibilities, funding and resources, there is no check on how they fulfill those obligations except by going to the state and asking the state to step in,” said Mark Dorosin, an attorney with the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights who has served as lead counsel in the Silver case.

The Court’s decision, which upheld a state appeals court decision, stems from a 2015 lawsuit, Silver et al. v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, in which plaintiffs in Halifax County alleged that education funding and policy decisions of that board prevent children in the district from receiving a sound basic education.

More specifically, parents and community leaders charged that maintenance of three racially-distinct school systems in the eastern North Carolina county has created what is described as a system of haves and have-nots.

The North Carolina Supreme Court on Friday unanimously upheld the conclusion of the state Court of Appeals that only the state bears any constitutional obligations regarding education.

Here is what the court had to say:

[N]o express provision requires boards of county commissioners to provide for or preserve any rights relating to education. . . . Complications born of the incompetence or obstinance of a county board of county commissioners relating to the finances of local education are the “ultimate responsibility” of the State, which must step in and ameliorate the errors. . . . to the extent that a county, as an agency of the State, hinders the opportunity for children to receive a sound basic education, it is the State’s constitutional burden to take corrective action.

Dorosin said Thursday that he and his clients will soon discuss next steps.

“We’ll be meeting with the clients and asking if they want to restart this action but do it as the court has now instructed us and do it against the state,” Dorosin said. “That’s certainly an option.”

The plaintiffs in the Silver case include parents and guardians of five students, the Coalition for Education and Economic Security (CEES), a community advocacy organization and the Halifax branch of the NAACP.

In a statement, CEES and NACCP leaders in Halifax vowed to fight on, and open to pursuing a lawsuit against the state.

“Although we cannot understand how the court could hold that the constitution does not apply to county governments, we are undeterred in our fight for educational equity and quality in Halifax County,” said CEES Chairperson Rebecca Copeland.

And David Harvey, president of the Halifax County NAACP branch, said the court’s decision is disappointing and a big blow to years of effort to bring about change in the county.

“We will not give up,” Harvey said. “If our Supreme Court says we have to sue the state for the county’s failures, then that’s what we will do.”

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State Supreme Court: Sound education a state responsibility