NAACP Blasts Segregation in N.C. Schools

     HALIFAX, N.C. (CN) – A North Carolina county runs an unconstitutional, three-district public school system that provides “good” schools for white students and “bad” schools for blacks, parents and the NAACP claim in court.
     Parents of five schoolchildren, the NAACP and the Coalition for Education and Economic Security sued the Halifax County Board of Commissioners on state constitutional grounds in Halifax County Court.
     The parents say the county pleads poverty for its poor-performing schools, yet refuses experts’ recommendation to consolidate the district to save money, so it can keep the schools segregated.
     Halifax County branch, in northeast North Carolina, is just south of the Virginia line.
     The county seat, Halifax, has a population of just 231. The county’s largest city, Roanoke Rapids, pop. 55,000, is 62 percent white and 31 percent black, according to city-data.com. Its median household income of $34,652 is 25 percent below the statewide median of $45,906, and its median house or condo value of $112,611 is 27 percent below the statewide median of $154,300, according to city-data.
     Lead plaintiff Latonya Silver, who has three children in the Halifax school system, claims the county has a history of racial segregation.
     “Halifax County’s three-district system is a vestige of the Jim Crow era that perpetuates a racial stigma because it maintains two failing and under-resourced black school districts and one white, better performing and better-resourced school district, all in a majority nonwhite county,” the families claim in the Aug. 24 lawsuit.
     The poor black districts are the Halifax County Public Schools and Weldon City Schools, and the wealthier white one is the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, according to the complaint.
     Halifax County Public School students perform worst in the state on standardized tests, with fewer than 32 percent scoring at or above grade level averages since 2008, according to state statistics. The parents claim that extracurricular activities in predominantly black Halifax schools are virtually nonexistent.
     Northwest High School students in the predominantly black Halifax County Public School district have been showered with debris and exposed to mold in crumbling classrooms, trudged through sewage-flooded hallways and endured bitter weather with broken heating and air systems – when they are fortunate enough to have running school buses, according to the complaint.
     More than half the Halifax County Public School buildings are more than 50 years old and only five of more than 30 have had any renovations at all since they were built.
     Weldon City Schools have the largest percent of black students in the three districts and rank second to last on standardized test scores for grades three through eight, with fewer than half of students meeting state averages.
     Weldon Middle School is infested with pests and rodents, bathroom stalls have no door, and soap dispensers are “routinely empty.”
     In contract, Manning Elementary School, in the Roanoke Rapids district, has “a computer lab, school-wide wireless access, a media center, an art room and smartboards in every classroom.” Nonetheless, in February this year, the defendant county approved a $19 million project to demolish Manning Elementary and replace it with a new school next door.
     Roanoke Rapids High School, which was renovated in 2004, features a building on the National Register of Historic Place, separate buildings for physical education and music and a new for its majority-white student body, according to the complaint.
     But across town, “Students at Halifax County Public Schools and Weldon City Schools are frequently forced to share old and worn down textbooks, workbooks, and other classroom materials.” Children there “are not allowed to bring textbooks home,” which makes it hard for them to complete homework assignments and for their parents to help them, and gives these students daily reminders “of their
     second-class status in Halifax County,” the parents say in the complaint.
     The parents blame the board of commissioners for a teacher turnover rate in the black schools that is twice that of the white ones.
     In the county’s black schools, “Recent graduates remember teaching themselves subjects because full-time teachers did not do so effectively, and long-term substitute teachers lacked the necessary experience or certification in a subject to answer students’ questions,” the parents say. They claim that their children are two to three times more likely to have an unqualified teacher than their Roanoke Rapids peers.
     “To meet staffing needs, the black districts rely in part upon Teach for America … an organization which places uncertified, recent college graduates in low-income classrooms for a two-year minimum commitment,” the complaint states.
     Teach for America volunteers accounted for 18 percent of Weldon City’s teaching staff and 10 percent of Halifax County between 2011 and 2012 – but none at Roanoke Rapids, according to the lawsuit.
     Roanoke Rapids and Weldon City Schools received more than $6.5 million in sales tax funding and $3.3 million in supplemental property tax rates a year from 2006 to 2014, at rates which the county board sets for Weldon County Schools, but that Roanoke Rapids sets for itself the parents say. But they say Halifax County Public Schools do not see a dollar of funding from the sales or property taxes allotted to the other districts, forcing impoverished Halifax County Public School families to pay for other children’s educations instead of their own.
     “Each year, the board has the opportunity to select the per capita method, under which the board would retain a greater portion of sales tax revenue. Any portion of that revenue spent on education would be distributed to the school districts on an equalized per-pupil basis. The board has repeatedly refused to adopt the per capita method, preferring to maintain a public education system that denies additional funding to Halifax County Public Schools,” according to the complaint.
     “Those supplemental property taxes were established in the early twentieth century when Roanoke Rapids and Weldon County Schools were predominantly white.”
     Until the 1960s, Roanoke Rapids also operated the Chaloner School, an all-black school that kept Halifax County racially segregated. Even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, “all three districts resisted federal segregation efforts throughout the mid-1960s and early 1970,” the complaint states.
     In 1964, Halifax County Public Schools adopted a “freedom-of-choice” desegregation plan, whereby white parents influenced the board to decline requests from blacks wishing to transfer into the school district by extending district lines to encompass white areas outside the boundaries and excluding black neighborhoods.
     “Since their creation, the school districts relied on an inter-district transfer policy to reinforce this racially segregated education system,” according to the complaint.
     Not until the Department of Justice sued Halifax County Public Schools in 1969 for the “freedom-of-choice” facade was the district forced to integrate.
     “Today, Roanoke Rapids General School District includes one predominantly white area outside city limits and excludes at least three predominantly black areas in southeast Roanoke Rapids: Southgate, Hodgestown and Chockoyotte,” the complaint states.
     “As a result of the present school district boundaries, many black children who reside within Roanoke Rapids municipal boundaries are bused to schools in Halifax County Public Schools, allowing Roanoke Rapids General School District to preserve its longstanding majority white student enrollment.”
     Even after the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, “Halifax County has never desegregated its schools,” according to the lawsuit.
     “School districts are relieved of their legal obligation to eliminate their dual school systems only when they show that they have affirmatively eliminated all remnants of state-imposed segregation and are declared ‘unitary’ by the court,” the complaint states. “To date, there is no evidence of an order indicating that Halifax County Public Schools ever obtained a judicial determination of unitary status.”
     In 1969, the federal government urged the county to consolidate schools into a single-district system. That came when state Rep. Henry Frye, “the first African American elected to the state Legislature in the twentieth century, asked whether anyone had considered consolidating the three districts instead.”
     In 2011, consulting firm Evergreen Solutions reported that the three-district system forced schools to compete for resources, such as money, teachers and administrators.
     “From the perspective of mitigating the effects of declining enrollment, consolidation is a no-brainer,” Evergreen told the board. It said a single-district system would consolidate costs such as grant reporting and monitoring, food service and free lunch programs, facility maintenance and bus transportation.
     Nonetheless, the board voted unanimously to keep the three districts separate, and told Evergreen to focus on general school improvements within the system. In response, Evergreen found the second most cost-effective solution would be to redraw attendance lines, allowing students to “attend the nearest elementary school with excess capacity.”
     In 2009, the North Carolina State Board of Education adopted a plan to provide Halifax County Public Schools with $1.8 million in faculty training and improvements, acknowledging that Halifax County Public School students were not receiving an education on par with state standards.
     But the plan failed, according to the Department of Public Instruction’s former director Pat Ashley, who “testified that there were extended periods during which Halifax County Public School classrooms were not staffed by certified teachers or teachers certified in the subject area, and that there existed the possibility that a student in Halifax County Public Schools would have no certified math teacher in middle or high school.”
     “The board maintains three of the lowest-performing school districts in the state to serve less than 7,000 students,” the parents say. “The board’s local funding decisions, including the appropriation of the local sales tax revenue, fail to adequately or fairly resource the three districts, and reinforces the stigma of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ schools along racial lines. …
     “The board maintains that it is financially distressed, yet chooses to maintain a three-district public education system that creates competition between the white and black school districts for limited educational resources, wastes scarce educational resources, and ignores potential efficiencies offered by a consolidated district.”
     The parents ask the court to declare the county system unconstitutional, and order the county to fix it.
     Their lead attorneys are Mark Dorosin and Elizabeth Haddix, with the University of North Carolina Center for Civil Rights, in Chapel Hill, assisted by attorney with Latham & Watkins, in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
     Board of Commissioners Chairman Vernon Bryan told Courthouse News that the board is aware of the lawsuit and plans to address the allegations after the board’s next meeting, on Sept. 8.

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