Groups push for school district consolidation in Halifax

Posted August 25, 2015 6:04 p.m. EDT

— Advocacy groups that filed a lawsuit Monday against the Halifax County Board of Commissioners over local support for Halifax County Schools said Tuesday that the county's three school districts should be merged into one.

In the 38-page lawsuit, the groups allege the commissioners have maintained an inefficient system that creates obstacles for local children that counters North Carolina's constitutional guarantee of a sound, basic education to all students.

"They act like some of our children are more entitled to a better education that others. Just by happenstance, that behavior that is displayed – that entitlement – seems to be along racial lines," said Rebecca Copeland, chairwoman of the Coalition for Education and Economic Security, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

Halifax County's three school districts serve a total of about 7,000 students. The enrollment in Roanoke Rapids Graded School District is 65 percent white, while Halifax County Schools is 85 percent black and Weldon City Schools is 94 percent black, according to state Department of Public Instruction data.

The plaintiffs contend that the Board of Commissioners has rigged the distribution of local sales tax revenue to benefit the Roanoke Rapids and Weldon districts at the expense of the county district.

"It's economically insane. It doesn't make any sense to have three (districts) in a county this small," said Rev. William Barber, state president of the NAACP, another plaintiff in the lawsuit.

Copeland said the lawsuit is unrelated to a recent state takeover of Halifax County Schools.

The State Board of Education last week assumed control of the district's finances and all new hiring decisions, saying the school board was meddling too much in school operations. The state has been working with the district under court order since 2009 to improve student performance.

"Every effort that could have brought us change has failed," Copeland said, adding that she and others are aware that uniting the three school districts won't solve all of the county's education problems.

"We don't want anybody to think that consolidation is a magic pill. It's not a silver bullet, but it is a necessary first step," she said.

Board of Commissioners Chairman Vernon Bryant declined to comment Tuesday on the lawsuit until he and his colleagues had a chance to review it. He said the board would likely discuss it at a Sept. 8 meeting.

Halifax County Schools Superintendent Elease Frederick said she supports lawsuit but declined to comment further.