State Supreme Court rejects Halifax educational equity lawsuit

                               Halifax County education advocates following argument at the NC Supreme Court

On December 21, in  Silver et al v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners  the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled that boards of county commissioners have no responsibility under the state constitution to provide the opportunity for every child in North Carolina to obtain a sound basic education, despite the critical role counties play in providing educational funding and resources.

The Court’s 1997 decision in Leandro v. State recognized the constitutional right to a sound basic education. Seven years later, the court reaffirmed this fundamental right. Today’s ruling undercuts the scope and impact of the Leandro decisions and the goal of educational equity in our state.

In Silver, the plaintiffs alleged that the education funding and policy decisions of the Halifax County Board of Commissioners violated the constitutional right recognized in Leandro. The lower courts rejected that claim, asserting that county boards of commissioners have no responsibility to execute their education-related duties in a manner compliant with the constitution. The state supreme court unanimously upheld the conclusion that only the State bears any constitutional obligations regarding education, declaring:

[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.

Halifax County has three separate school districts serving fewer than 7,000 students. Weldon City Schools has less than 1,000 students, 94% of whom are African American. Halifax County Public Schools and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District each have less than 3,000 students, but 65% of Roanoke Rapids’ students are white, while the county district’s students are 85% black. The plaintiffs allege that the educational resources and outcomes of the three districts demonstrate that the county board of commissioners is obstructing the opportunity for all students in the county to receive a sound basic education.

The Silver plaintiffs are 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. They filed suit against the county in August 2015, alleging the commissioners’ continued maintenance of the three school districts violates the state constitutional right of students in Halifax County to a sound basic education.
CEES Chairperson Rebecca Copeland said, “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.”

David Harvey, President of the NAACP branch, expressed disappointment in the court’s decision: “We have been advocating for all students in Halifax County for almost a decade, and this lawsuit was our last resort after years of trying to work with our county leaders for change. But we will not give up. If our Supreme Court says we have to sue the State for the County’s failures, then that’s what we will do.”

The plaintiffs are represented by the Julius L. Chambers Center for Civil Rights, and also by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Latham & Watkins. Amicus briefs were filed by Duke Children’s law Clinic, Advocates for Children’s Services (Legal Aid) and Public Schools First NC; and the NC Advocates for Justice.

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