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State and Halifax County celebrate public school improvement

Lost in the swirl of special sessions of the General Assembly, buried beneath the weight of President-elect Donald Trump’s tweets, overlooked in a society bombarded by 24-hours news, was a gathering in Halifax County that celebrated success — something that has, in the past, seemed elusive.

Early in December, representatives from the State Board of Education and the Department of Public Instruction joined with members of the Halifax County Public Schools Board of Education to celebrate improved results in the public school system.

In the most recent round of School Performance Grades, Halifax moved off the list of low-performing districts. A low performing district is one where more than half of the schools in the district qualify as low performing.

Currently, four out of the district’s 10 schools qualify as low performing. In 2014-15, six of its schools qualified as low performing.

For many years, Halifax was dead last in the state for performance, but it moved up to 113 out of 115 districts in 2015, and it has moved up one more spot to 112 this year.

Halifax had even more good news after the most recent election. A measure on the ballot for voters in the district passed that will give Halifax County Public Schools a supplemental schools tax that School Board Chair Claude Cooper said could potentially bring in as much as $2 million extra dollars.

He said that money could help with a variety of issues that come up all the time — like the need for an extra teacher assistant, teacher, activity bus, or any number of other situations.

“We’ve never had funds to do that,” he said. “Those simple things are the things that would really enhance what we need,” he said.

This is the third time that Halifax has tried to get a supplemental school tax. The most recent attempt was in 2012. The first was in the 1980s, according to Becky Copeland, Chair of the Coalition for Education and Economic Security (CEES) in Halifax County. She said the final success of the ballot measure was thanks to efforts by CEES and other community organizations and members to educate the public.

Those efforts were just starting in 2012, when the last ballot measure failed. But they continued afterwards.

“We didn’t stop after the election was done, we kept the community conversations, we kept educating in small pockets across the county,” she said.

She said disinformation by opponents of the supplemental tax in 2012 convinced voters that some of them wouldn’t be able to afford their taxes and might even lose their homes if a supplemental tax passed. That was a rumor that CEES and others in the community tried to dispel.

A supplemental tax isn’t a cure-all, Copeland says. Halifax County Public Schools remains a poor school district, but she said the funds are a step in the right direction.

“It will at least help to equalize the funding disparity,” she said. “It will provide some much needed balance that they need to supplement teacher salaries.”

That funding disparity is one created by having three separate school districts contained within Halifax County, according to CEES, the NAACP and other plaintiffs in a lawsuit seeking to merge Halifax County Public Schools with the two other Halifax County school districts — Weldon City Schools and the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District.

That lawsuit was initially dismissed, but the plaintiffs in the case appealed. Go here to read more about that.

At the early December meeting where representatives of the State Board of Education, the Department of Public Instruction and members of the Halifax County Public Schools Board of Education came together, many spoke about the road of improvement that Halifax County Public Schools has been on.

State Board of Education Chair Bill Cobey noted an increase in the graduation rate in Halifax of more than 18 percent since 2009, a 10 percent increase in overall district proficiency under the present accountability system, and he said that 60 percent of schools in the district show “a trend of improvement.”

“This is the major reason that Halifax County Schools are no longer included on the list of low performing districts,” he said.

See his full comments below.

Success in Halifax wasn’t achieved by local leaders alone. DPI has been engaged in turnaround efforts in the district for years. In August 2015 the state intervened further, requiring, among other things, that the district run hiring decisions by the state.

Since then, Halifax had elections that brought some new faces to the Board of Education, it retired one superintendent and hired a new one, and, it now — as we mentioned — has its own supplemental education tax.

Rebecca Garland, Deputy State Superintendent, acknowledged a partnership between the state and the district, but ultimately gave credit for the district’s improvement to education leaders, community members, parents, and students on the ground.

“For the past 7 years, we’ve been on this journey together to address the needs of your school and to strengthen teaching and learning from kindergarten through grade 12. And over those years, you’ve made significant improvements as a result of your hard work,” she said.

See her full comments below.

Cooper — who has strong educational ties to the community — talked in his public comments about what it’s like to work in a district that doesn’t have as many resources as other districts.

“Having been a principal in Halifax for 23 years, it’s embarrassing to sit and watch other people do something that you can’t,” he said.

The supplemental tax will allow Halifax flexibility it hasn’t previous had. Some of the benefits will be immediate, and some will be long term, he said, but the extra money will help bring change to the district.

“You give us two years, you’re going to see the effects of what this supplemental tax has done,” Cooper said.

See his full comments below.

The passage of the supplemental tax means that a revenue-sharing agreement between Roanoke Rapids Graded School District and Halifax County Public Schools is null and void. The thinking is that Halifax will now be able to take care of itself.

Alex Granados

Alex Granados was the senior reporter for EducationNC from December 2014-March 2023.