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Local groups sue Halifax Commissioners, hold press conference

Monday, some local community groups and parents in Halifax County announced a lawsuit against the Halifax County Commissioners over violations of Halifax students’ constitutional right to the opportunity for a sound basic education. 

The suit is being brought by the Coalition for Education and Economic Security (CEES), the Halifax County branch of the NAACP, and three parents and guardians of children in Halifax County public schools. 

The groups allege that contrary to providing that opportunity for a sound basic education, the board “maintains an inefficient three-district system that is a relic of the Jim Crow era, divides the children of Halifax County into the ‘good’ district and the ‘bad’ districts along racial lines, and fails to meet the fundamental educational mandates recognized by the North Carolina Supreme Court and established by the North Carolina Constitution,” according to a fact sheet handed out by the groups. 

During a press conference Tuesday in Halifax, representatives of CEES and the Halifax NAACP said that only the county commissioners have the power to unify the districts, and that commissioners have been ignoring their responsibilities. 

“Everyday our children are waking up in this county, they are still being sent out to schools that are very inadequate,” said Rebecca Copeland of CEES at the press conference, adding later: “They act as though they don’t understand they are responsible for the education of all students.”

During the press conference, representatives of CEES and the NAACP noted what they considered the racial element of the separation of school districts in Halifax. 

They said that the three districts — Halifax County Public Schools, Weldon City Schools, and Roanoke Rapids Graded School District — serve fewer than 7,000 students but are divided by race, with two of the districts made up of majority African-American students and one majority white.

Halifax Public Schools are overwhelmingly African-American, with 2,533 African-American students out of an entire student population of 2,988, according to statistics from the Department of Public Instruction. 

Weldon City Schools are also majority African-American, with 879 African-American students out of the entire 940 student population. 

Roanoke Rapids alone is majority white, with 1,897 white students out of the total population of 2,939 students. 

“You have elected people who want to keep us in the Jim Crow era forever in Halifax County,” said David Harvey of the Halifax NAACP. 

Harvey said the timing of the lawsuit had nothing to do with a recent announcement from the State Board of Education that it would be pursuing further interventions in Halifax Schools. In fact, Copeland said that turnaround efforts from DPI have been fruitless. 

“The truth is the turnaround plan by DPI was an attempt to cover the bodies,” she said, adding later:  “When DPI could not move the needle with regard to educational improvement, it turned its tact to the local school board.”

DPI has been intervening in Halifax Schools since a 2009 court consent order in the case Hoke County Board of Education et al. v. State of North Carolina and the State Board of Education, otherwise known as Leandro

Rev. William Barber, state NAACP president, also spoke at the press conference, saying that Halifax is still segregated despite the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. 

“This should have all been dealt with 61 years ago,” he said. “This town is 61 years behind history.”

Members of the suit aren’t alone in thinking Halifax’s three districts should be combined into one. 

Bill Cobey, chair of the State Board of Education, said the situation is “coming to a head.” 

“With the number of children in that county, it has made sense to me as looking from the outside that the county commissioners would move towards merger of the districts, which I think intuitively would make for a stronger district,” he said. 

He said that while it’s not his prerogative to make that decision, he believes a unified district would have better access to resources and give children more options for a sound, basic education. 

Donna Hunter, chair of the Halifax Board of Education, also said combining the school districts is long overdue. 

“Something has to happen because it’s just been going on too long with our kids,” she said. 

She criticized the divided focus of the state education system — with vouchers and charter schools mixed in with traditional public education — and said she didn’t understand why the state couldn’t provide the resources all children need to thrive. 

“If you’re for all the children, then why can’t you make sure that all the schools have all they need?,” she asked. 

She said the Halifax school districts should have merged years ago, and that by pursuing a merger, the educational outcomes for students in the county will improve. 

“With the number of kids that are located in Halifax County…it will make one decent school system,” she said. 

Halifax County Commission Vice Chair J. Rives Manning said that the county commissioners have not had a chance to meet and discuss the suit, which was just filed Monday. 

“I am a party to that suit as a county commissioner and I feel like it would be very inappropriate for me to make a comment,” he said. 

County Commission Board Chair Vernon J. Bryant said he is going to “reserve comment” until he’s been able to read the full complaint and discuss it with the commission, county manager, and others. 

He said the commission will have a regular meeting on September 8, and he anticipates a press release going out that day on the issue. 

 

Alex Granados

Alex Granados is senior reporter for EducationNC.