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.
The original case began in 1994 when parents, children and districts in several eastern North Carolina counties, including Halifax, claimed local schools were not receiving their fair share of tax revenues, causing poorer schools to lack the resources of more affluent neighbors.
Courts held that North Carolina schools have a constitutional duty to provide a “sound basic education” regardless of locale.
Yet, in the majority opinion issued Tuesday , judges wrote that duty rests chiefly with the state, and not the local government bodies the N.C. General Assembly oversees. Therefore, county commissioners cannot be held legally culpable.
“In this case, plaintiffs claim that the Halifax County Board of Commissioners—alone—bears the constitutional obligation for providing all children in the county with a sound basic education,” judges wrote. “This claim is not supported by our Supreme Court’s holdings in Leandro I and II.”
It’s a pivotal, and contentious, opinion. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Linda McGee wrote in a dissenting opinion that local governments indeed “have a role to play” in Halifax County’s myriad K-12 failings.
And the matter may not yet be settled. Under state law, McGee’s dissent will allow Halifax students to appeal their case further to the N.C. Supreme Court. Dorosin said Tuesday he’d be talking over an appeal with his clients in the coming days.
But in the meantime, Dorosin said that he believes this week’s ruling “narrows the scope” of responsibility for failing local schools more than the original judges in the Leandro case intended.
“There are multiple parties with roles in making our education system work, the state, local school boards and county commissioners,” said Dorosin. “All three of them have particular responsibilities, but all three of them have to execute those responsibilities to meet the constitutional obligation to a ‘sound basic education.’”
It’s a major point of controversy in North Carolina’s labyrinthine school funding system, which, put simply, hinges on state government to fund operations. Local governments, led by county commissioners, administer the cash and finance school construction and upkeep.
But poorer school districts in places like Halifax County, where roughly a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line, lack the tax base to fund badly needed facility costs.
Calls for a $1.9 billion statewide school bond referendum, aimed at shoring up rural counties’ dearth of capital cash, stalled in the N.C. General Assembly this year, but multiple state lawmakers have acknowledged the need for decisive state action in the years to come.
Meanwhile, local governments find the funds where they can. Last fall, voters in Halifax agreed to a new supplemental tax  geared toward bankrolling marginal improvements in the county’s struggling school system.
And the state’s per-pupil funding method allocates varying amounts of additional cash to North Carolina’s poor and rural counties.
Yet some state and local leaders say the N.C. General Assembly hasn’t done enough to address the shortfall in poor locales. Bill Cobey, chairman of the State Board of Education, points out members of his board approved a resolution last year calling upon state lawmakers to back a statewide infrastructure bond, something that hasn’t been done in North Carolina in more than two decades.
Cobey said the tax base in counties like Halifax simply can’t be relied upon to finance quality facilities and supplies.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” says Cobey. “We need to do something about it, but it’s a team effort. It’s not just the state. It’s the local authorities too.”
“Parsing on Power”
State Sen. Angela Bryant, a Democrat who represents Halifax County and holds a seat on her chamber’s
top budget committee, says this week’s Court of Appeals ruling will only muddy the issue of who’s to blame when a poorer school district operates with the kind of deficiencies alleged in Halifax schools.
“It’s parsing on power without looking at the whole picture,” says Bryant. “Somebody needs to address how you ferret out the responsibility between the state and the county in a situation such as Halifax County where the schools are underfunded across the board.”
Much of the controversy in Halifax, a county with a population of about 50,000, stems from its three separate, racially distinct school districts.
In Halifax County Public Schools, roughly 85 percent of students are African-American. And in Weldon City Schools, 94 percent are black, but in Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, approximately 65 percent of students are white.
The differences don’t stop there. From 2006 through 2014, Roanoke Rapids took in $4.5 million in county commission-distributed sales and use tax revenues, according to the legal complaint against the Halifax board. Weldon City Schools absorbed $2.5 million, but the county school system, operating then without a special supplemental tax, received nothing.
The complaint continues: County and city schools documented troubling infrastructure failures, while the Roanoke Rapids district received regular renovations, computer labs, art rooms and “pristine athletic field(s).”
The county and city districts, like many low-performing districts in North Carolina, struggled mightily to hire and retain teachers as well.
And, perhaps most troubling of all, county and city schools, since 2008, have had no more than 31 percent and 47 percent, respectively, of students scoring at or above grade level on statewide testing.
Dorosin’s clients said the conditions in schools contributed to the academic distress, arguing that the courts should condemn county commissioners’ “ineffective and inefficient allocation of financial resources” and order a local plan to remedy the disparities.
“The county commissioners, in trying to prop up these three segregated, very small districts, have been forced to distribute resources in an inequitable way,” adds Dorosin.
But this week’s ruling indicated judges believe the district’s critics should focus their efforts on the General Assembly and the state’s executive branch, which includes Gov. Roy Cooper, the State Board of Education and the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
Cobey, with the State Board of Education, says multiple parties should share the blame and the responsibility for action. He added that the state legislature must develop a funding mechanism for bolstering low-income counties such as Halifax.
“Everybody’s got to be in on making the changes that are necessary to facilities and instruction and better teachers and administrators,” said Cobey. “It has to be a comprehensive approach.”
Jamal Little, spokesman for Cooper’s office, said conflicts like those reported in Halifax County spurred the governor this summer to announce the creation of a commission  that would brainstorm reforms for addressing funding inequities in such poor districts.
“This ruling is a reminder that North Carolina is not doing enough for its students, and the governor hopes the General Assembly will work with him to invest more in our schools,” Little said in a statement.
Cooper’s commission was expected to hold quarterly meetings and work with a consultant to review Leandro-based reforms beginning this fall.
Cobey, meanwhile, says he believes Halifax’s problems may only be exacerbated by maintaining three school districts, suggesting local leaders’ efforts may be better spent focusing their time and resources on one district.
“I scratch my head when I see three school districts up there, in a low-population county,” he said.
Local leadership had little to say on the matter this week.
Leaders on the county Board of Education did not respond to Policy Watch interview requests. And Vernon Bryant, chairman of the Halifax County Board of Commissioners, declined to talk about the problems in Halifax, or the allegations of district inequities, adding only that board members were “pleased” the Court of Appeals upheld a trial court dismissal of the case last year.
But Sen. Bryant says the county needs a state examination of funding equity in small districts like Halifax that maintain multiple districts with different funding streams and supplemental taxes.
“Unless a new judge is willing to see some interconnection from this kind of decision, I don’t see where (this week’s ruling) helps,” said Bryant. “Hopefully an additional appeal to the Supreme Court might flesh out the intersection between the state’s responsibility and what the state authorizes counties to do.”
If another appeal is forthcoming, Dorosin says he hopes the case will get to the core of inequity issues raised more than 20 years ago in the Leandro case.
“I think it’s certainly accurate to say in Halifax County that students in these schools are still suffering from a violation of their constitutional rights.”