The North Carolina Supreme court heard arguments last week about whether county officials should share the blame with the state and local school districts if schools are so underfunded that some children don’t receive the opportunity for a sound basic education required by the state constitution. Silver et al vs. The Halifax County Board of Commissioners
Unlike most counties in the state that encompass only a single school district, Halifax County, which contains about 6,000 students, is split up into three districts: Halifax County Public Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District. Students in the county and Weldon districts are overwhelmingly African-American and from poverty backgrounds, while the Roanoke district is predominantly white. Attorneys for the parent plaintiffs have alleged that the method the county uses to distribute sales tax revenues has resulted in the Roanoke Rapids schools receiving about $4.5 million and Weldon schools $2.5 million in added local revenue between 2006 and 2014, while the county district received no county revenues at all. In addition, property owners in the Weldon and Roanoke Rapids school districts pay a supplemental property tax that generates more than $1 million a year for each district, but the county district is not allowed to do the same.
The state Court of Appeals ruled 2-1 last September that the Leandro case established that state officials have the constitutional obligation to provide the opportunity for a sound basic education and that, therefore, the Halifax County parents should take their complaints to the governor and legislators rather than county officials. The dissenting judge said counties can be sued since the legislature assigned them responsibility for funding buildings and supplies.
The case is particularly noteworthy at this time, as a special committee appointed last summer to look into breaking up the state’s largest school districts, Wake County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg into smaller school districts, delivered inconclusive findings earlier this month.