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Edgecombe County Commissioners vote to approve Rocky Mount schools demerger

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  • Starting in the 2024-25 school year, approximately 1,700 students who live on the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount will transition from the Nash school system to the Edgecombe school system.
  • The move will transition four schools located on the Edgecombe side of Rocky Mount to the Edgecombe County school system.
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Starting in the 2024-25 school year, approximately 1,700 students who live on the Edgecombe County side of Rocky Mount will transition from attending Nash County Public Schools to attending Edgecombe County Public Schools.

In a 5-1 vote, the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners approved a motion at their Sep. 6 meeting to trigger a county-line demerger of the Nash County school system. The move will transition the four schools located on the Edgecombe side of Rocky Mount — D.S. Johnson Elementary School, Fairview Elementary, Baskerville Elementary, and Parker Middle School — to the Edgecombe County school system.

Board Chair Leonard Wiggins and Commissioners Viola Harris, Wayne Hines, Evelyn Powell, and Ralph Webb all voted for the motion while Commissioner Billy Wooten voted against it. Commissioner Donald Boswell was not in attendance.

How did we get here?

Prior to 1992, Nash and Edgecombe counties had four school districts between them: Nash County Schools, Rocky Mount City Schools, Edgecombe County Schools, and Tarboro City Schools.

In 1989, the Rocky Mount City Board of Education filed a federal desegregation lawsuit against the Nash County Board of Education. The lawsuit resulted in legislation merging the two school systems into Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, effective July 1, 1992. At the same time, the Edgecombe County and Tarboro City school systems merged to form Edgecombe County Public Schools (ECPS).

The Rocky Mount train station. The railroad forms the present-day border between Nash and Edgecombe counties. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The legislation stated that students who attended Rocky Mount City Schools and lived in Edgecombe County would now attend Nash-Rocky Mount Schools, and Edgecombe County would pay the local per-pupil funding for those students. However, Edgecombe County’s local per-pupil allotment was, and still is, lower than Nash County’s local per-pupil allotment, so the legislation stated that the City of Rocky Mount would pay the difference, what officials refer to as the “gap funding.” The legislation also required Edgecombe County to pay capital funds to Nash-Rocky Mount Schools.

In 2016, the Nash County Board of Commissioners, led by Chairperson Robbie Davis, voted to pursue legislation for a county-line demerger to send the students who lived in Edgecombe County but attended Nash-Rocky Mount Schools to ECPS.

The City of Rocky Mount, the Edgecombe County school board, and the Nash-Rocky Mount school board all opposed this measure, with some saying the move was racially motivated.

In the spring of 2016, the two Boards of Commissioners held several meetings to try to come to an agreement. They ended up with Senate Bill 382, which kept the Nash-Rocky Mount school system together but shifted the responsibility of paying both capital costs and the “gap funding” to Edgecombe County starting July 1, 2020.

Senate Bill 382 also states that if Edgecombe County fails to pay either the capital costs or local per-pupil allotment, this will automatically trigger a county-line demerger where all students who live in Edgecombe County and attend Nash County Public Schools will be transferred to ECPS.

Meeting between the Nash County Board of Commissioners and Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners in 2016. Alex Granados/EducationNC

Since July 2020, Edgecombe County has had to pay Nash County both the “gap funding,” which this school year amounts to $552,000, and approximately 11-12%, or their “proportionate share,” of capital costs.

Edgecombe County has paid Nash County roughly $2,156,000 in capital costs since 2018-19 and is projected to pay another $466,000 this year.

Unhappy with this arrangement, the Edgecombe County Board of Commissioners approved funding for a new position to study and explore a potential demerger. The district hired Donnell Cannon, the former principal of North Edgecombe High School, as the executive director of district transformation and redesign to lead this work.

Cannon spent last school year conducting interviews with Rocky Mount students, parents, community members, and business leaders; visiting schools around the country to study new models; and leading a design team to think through different options if the demerger occurs. ECPS also held three community meetings in Rocky Mount this past May to get feedback from community members.

After hearing from Cannon and ECPS Superintendent Dr. Valerie Bridges this past May, Chair Wiggins pledged to hold a vote on the demerger in the next 90 days. The board voted against the demerger 4-3 in July before voting for the demerger on Tuesday.

Community response

Fourteen people spoke either in support of or against the demerger during the public comment portion of Tuesday’s meeting. Those who spoke in support of the demerger included ECPS Board of Education Chair Reverend Raymond Privott, Edgecombe Community College President Dr. Gregory McLeod, Rocky Mount City Council member Reverend Richard Joyner, and Rep. Shelley Willingham, D-Edgecombe.

Joyner, who is representing the Rocky Mount City Council on the design team, said both Rocky Mount Mayor Sandy Roberson and the City Council support the demerger.

“We as the city council of Rocky Mount, we’re not walking away from you after you make your decision,” Joyner said. “We are going to be with you because these are all of our children.”

Dr. McLeod highlighted the fact that currently, east Rocky Mount high school students are being served by Nash Community College through dual enrollment despite the fact that Edgecombe Community College’s Rocky Mount campus is right in their backyard. He also pointed to the new early college, EDGE Academy of Health Sciences, that was recently approved and received funding in the last state budget.

“I believe that I can do, and we can do, the best job possible for those students,” Dr McLeod said, “and I stand ready.”

Those who spoke against the demerger said they believed it would cause further division in Rocky Mount and would stress an already low-performing school district.

“This will further split Rocky Mount as a whole,” Crystal Anderson, a Rocky Mount resident and parent of school-aged children, said. “What we don’t want to do is stifle the growth trend we’re seeing now. We don’t need to overburden the school system.”

Dr. Bridges highlighted the growth in student performance since the 2016-17 school year, despite the negative impact of the pandemic on this past year’s test scores. She said the state’s accountability framework, which grades schools on a formula that is 80% student proficiency and 20% growth, disadvantages high-needs districts.

Rep. Willingham pledged that he will do everything in his power to get state resources to help Edgecombe County with this transition.

“I can tell you as far as the school system, as a unit, and the quality of education, I would put it against any other school system,” he said.

In discussion before the vote, Commissioner Viola Harris asked if there was a way to amend Senate Bill 382 so Edgecombe County was only paying capital costs on the four Nash system schools located in Edgecombe County. When Chair Wiggins asked Rep. Willingham if there was any guarantee they could get something like that through the legislature, Willingham shook his head no.

What comes next

The demerger will not take place until the 2024-25 school year. In the meantime, the Edgecombe County Board of Education and ECPS staff will work to prepare for the transition in conjunction with the Nash County School Board and staff.

Edgecombe County will continue paying Nash County both per-pupil expenditures and capital costs until fiscal year 23-24, Edgecombe County Manager Eric Evans said.

To learn more about ECPS’ vision for the demerger, read our previous reporting here.

Editor’s note: Donnell Cannon serves on EdNC’s Strategic Council.

Molly Osborne Urquhart

Molly Osborne is the vice president and director of operations for EducationNC.