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The United States Department of Justice is requesting information from the Halifax County Board of Education as part of a many-decades old school desegregation suit filed against the Halifax Board by the Department.

In a letter sent to the attorney representing the Board, Larry Armstrong, the Department states: “…we have become aware that the Halifax County School District (the ‘District’) is planning to close two elementary schools, and has recently become involved in a state suit seeking to consolidate the District with the Roanoke Rapids and Weldon City school districts. This letter is to notify you that we have initiated a case review to assess the District’s compliance with the operative desegregation orders in this case and applicable federal law.”

It’s important to note that Halifax County Public Schools are not actually a part of the suit filed by local families and groups against the Halifax County Board of Commissioners. Also important to note is the fact that, according to DPI’s Statistical Profile, in 2015, 85 percent of the students in the Halifax County Schools are African American.

Merger Mayhem

The Halifax County Board of Commissioners has responded to the above-mentioned suit that is trying to force it to merge the county’s three schools districts —  Halifax Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District.

Local groups and families filed the suit back in August, and the Commissioners are now asking the courts to dismiss the case.

The motion says the original suit “fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, i.e., there is no law which supports the claim.”

The motion goes on to question the standing of the groups making up the plaintiffs and states that the suit doesn’t include other defendants that should have been named — including the State Board of Education and the three boards of education in the respective Halifax school districts.

The response by the defendants also addressed specific statements and complaints contained in the plaintiff’s suit, including the notion that the Commissioners are “obligated to ‘structure a system of public education.'”

The response states that the Commissioners are “not legally authorized to structure a system of public education.”

Numerous paragraphs in the plaintiff’s suit receive the following response from the defendants: “the Defendant is without knowledge or information sufficient to form a belief as to the truth of those allegations, and they are therefore denied.”

The response also denies that inequitable local funding of the three districts is the fault of the Commissioners. In the following quote “HCPS” is referring to the Halifax County Public Schools system. The “two city school districts” are Weldon City Schools and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District.

“[T]he alleged ‘funding disparities’ are a result of the fact that the residents of the two city school districts voted to impose a supplemental school tax on themselves… It should be noted that voters in the HCPS district rejected referenda proposing a supplemental school tax for HCPS in 1986 and 2012, which if passed, would have afforded HCPS the same opportunity to share in the distribution of sales and use taxes.”

NAACP in Roanoke Rapids

Last month, David Harvey, president of the Halifax County Branch of the NAACP, went to the Board of Education of the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District to discuss a number of issues, including the district boundaries that he said deny some Roanoke Rapids residents access to district schools.

He presented a petition from families who say they are affected by district boundaries in this way and are bused to neighboring Weldon City or Halifax Schools instead.

According to a written statement provided to EducationNC, Harvey went on to say:

“These residents, almost entirely African-American, have for generations felt the sting of racial prejudice in school assignment zones.  I know, I was one of them. Please put yourself in our place and ask if you would tolerate this kind of treatment for your children.  It is wrong to live next to a school your children can not attend. Everyone knows that the changing of the boundaries for RRGSD would affect the student populations of Weldon City Schools and Halifax County.  Therefore, we are asking that you study the matter of school attendance zones.”

In an op-ed in the Roanoke Rapids Daily Herald, Harvey talked about what relation the NAACP complaints about district boundaries have to the lawsuit attempting to merge the three Halifax districts. While they have some commonalities, he said they are not connected.

“…[B]oth situations have civil rights at their core. Second, aside from the civil rights connection, there is no direct tie between the two. The RRGSD line issue is local and affects Roanoke Rapids residents only. The court case deals with sound basic education issues county wide. Adjusting the RRGSD school line is independent of the court case. However, as a practical matter, if the court case leads to merger of the three school systems, the lines of RRGSD would become moot. One county, one district would lead to a new governing structure for all public schools in Halifax County,” he said in the op-ed.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.