In Halifax County, a continuing battle over schools

CorrespondentNovember 9, 2013 

  • The long-running case

    In 1994, five rural, low-wealth school districts filed suit against the state claiming they were not receiving adequate funding to provide an equal education for schoolchildren. Their contention was that, as poor counties, they could not raise enough in local tax funds to ensure a quality education.

    In decisions in 1997 and 2004, the state Supreme Court held that that the state constitution guarantees every child an equal right to a “sound basic education” and that the state’s efforts to provide that education to poor children were inadequate. The proceeding came to be known as the Leandro case, named for the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit.

    The case was sent back to Wake Superior Court Judge Howard E. Manning Jr., who has overseen the state’s efforts to comply. Manning in 2009 entered a consent order for the state to intervene in the Halifax County school district to help improve student performance. That resulted in the turnaround plan now being implemented in the county schools.

  • About the reporter

    Ted Vaden was a reporter and editor for 32 years with The News & Observer and its subsidiary, The Chapel Hill News. Upon retiring as public editor of The N&O in 2009, he joined the state Department of Transportation as deputy secretary for communications. He retired from that position in 2012.

  • How Halifax stacks up

    DistrictHalifax County schoolsRoanoke RapidsWeldon schoolsStateAverageDataYear
    Local Funding$682$1,147$1,990$1,7132012
    Students at grade level17.1%37.8%17.9%44.7%2013
    Four-year graduation rate75.5%80.0%85.3%82.5%2013
    Non-white students96%33%97%48%2013

    Source: State Department of Public Instruction

— Asiah Joyner was accustomed to classroom success when she graduated from Northwest Halifax High School last June.

An honor roll student, she was selected as outstanding senior, graduated ninth in her class of 121 and earned admission to Howard University, the prestigious historically black institution in Washington.

But in her first semester at Howard, Joyner, 18, has struggled to keep up. In courses such as algebra and English, she has had to do double-duty – learning not only the new college-level coursework, but also material that her new classmates already know, such as how to format an essay.

“I have to learn stuff I should have been taught in high school,” she said. “I feel kind of overwhelmed because we weren’t taught it in the first place.”

Joyner had the misfortune of being born into North Carolina’s lowest-performing school system, located in one of the state’s poorest counties. Halifax students ranked worst in North Carolina – only 17 percent tested at grade level – on state performance test scores released last week.

Halifax schools consistently rank at or near the bottom on other measures such as graduation rates, teacher turnover and percent of students in poverty. The county itself has the state’s fourth-highest unemployment rate (12.1 percent in August) and 12th highest poverty rate, 24 percent.

Halifax schools stand out for other reasons: They receive among the lowest levels of local funding in the state, have the highest racial imbalance and have three school systems to serve 7,465 students. Student enrollment in two – Halifax County and Weldon – is more than 95 percent non-white. The other, Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, is 67 percent white.

Halifax schools are in such dire shape that the state four years ago dispatched an education SWAT team to try to boost student performance. The intervention is the first such court-ordered state turnaround effort in a North Carolina school system.

The judge who ordered the intervention, Howard E. Manning Jr., will review the Halifax effort this week as part of a hearing on the broader school case, known as Leandro, that requires the state to provide children in the state’s lowest-performing and poorest counties a sound basic education. When he ordered the intervention in 2009, Manning called the Halifax situation “academic genocide.”

The state’s turnaround effort will be on display at the hearing in Raleigh Wednesday and Thursday, but increasingly in Halifax County the debate is about a more fundamental remedy to the schools’ disparity – merging the three school systems.

“I think when you start thinking about equality, when you start thinking about disparity in funding, when you start thinking about the civil rights issues, the only fix is to unify and merge these school districts,” said David Harvey, president of the Halifax branch of the NAACP. “Anything else is just glossing over the problem.”

Retorts J. Rives Manning Jr., county commissioner who leads the anti-merger forces: “They have never proposed that this is going to help the education level of the kids,” he said. “They want to do away with the Roanoke Rapids school system.”

Results of a takeover

This week, Judge Manning will hear that Halifax schools have made progress under the turnaround effort. Even though the system’s overall test scores were dismal, five of the schools met goals for academic growth as measured by the tests, four exceeded goals and only one did not meet the goal. In 2009, when the state stepped into Halifax, seven Halifax schools did not meet growth goals.

The reason Halifax students have low test scores but still show adequate growth is because they enter school at a very low starting point, behind their peers elsewhere in North Carolina. The 2013 test results showed they are showing more annual growth compared to four years ago. Most school districts statewide had lower test scores.

“I think this is a success story,” June Atkinson, state superintendent of public instruction, said in an interview before the scores were released. In addition to the growth results, graduation rates are higher and the schools’ finances – previously deemed impossible to audit – are receiving cleaner audits.

“Candidly, in Halifax County we had to start at ground zero,” Atkinson said. “They did not have in place the processes and infrastructure to do the routine tasks such as purchasing, human resources processing of documents, financial controls.”

Under the turnaround program, the state pays for 15 employees working in the district as coaches in the classroom and central office, plus teacher trainers brought in at the start of every school year. Pat Ashley, the state Department of Public Instruction official who leads the “transformation” project, estimates the cost to the state at $1.5 million annually; others put it at $2 million or more in a small school district with an annual budget of $40 million.

Larry Armstrong, an Enfield lawyer who serves as Halifax schools attorney, filed the original Leandro suit in 1994. He says he did not have high expectations of the state intervention.

“As the Halifax County schools attorney, I’m the dog that caught the car,” Armstrong said. “I got much more than I bargained for…. They brought the troops in and they brought the money in.”

‘Irreparable harm’

Attention to the Halifax schools situation hasn’t been limited to officials in Raleigh. In 2011, the University of North Carolina School of Law issued a 65-page report assessing the funding disparity and the racial separation resulting from the existence of three systems in Halifax.

The report, by the law school’s Center for Civil Rights, said by keeping the three-district system, “Halifax County and the state more deeply entrench racial segregation in the community, limit the educational resources available to students based on their race, cause irreparable harm to the academic opportunities for all children in the county and stunt economic viability of the region.”

The report noted the curious boundary lines delineating the three districts. Both the Roanoke Rapids and Weldon school districts extend into part of the county, bringing more white students into the Roanoke Rapids schools. Meanwhile, the Roanoke Rapids district excludes some neighborhoods that lie within the city limits – neighborhoods that are mostly black. This year, 189 students who live in Roanoke Rapids attend the Halifax County schools

As Harvey, the NAACP leader, says, children who live in the all-black Hodgestown neighborhood in Roanoke Rapids can see a Roanoke Rapids middle school from their backyards, but they are bused five miles into the county for middle school and eight miles to an elementary.

“Where else in this country is that okay?” he asked.

Rives Manning, the county commissioner, defends the school lines. They were drawn by state statute in 1904 and 1907, he said, based on geographical features such as creeks and the Roanoke River.

“How in the hell is that gerrymandering?” said Manning, who attended the Roanoke Rapids schools. “It has never been changed. That nullifies as far as I’m concerned a big part of the gerrymandering accusation that the UNC report did and Mr. Harvey always harks on.”

The UNC report concludes that the only cure for the Halifax funding and racial disparity is merger of the systems and argues that merger should be forced by the courts through the Leandro proceedings.

Mark Dorosin, managing attorney for the Civil Rights Center, said the state’s turnaround effort may bring improvements but does not address the central issue of separate systems.

“It’s like building a house,” he said. “If the foundation is bad, it doesn’t matter how much you dress up the upstairs.”

Opposition to merger

After the UNC report, the school boards in Roanoke Rapids and Weldon commissioned their own study to refute it. It said the UNC study was not supported by research and that the merger was risky and “would impose unacceptable costs on the citizens of Halifax County.”

Opponents of a merger say it would require raising taxes, because state law mandates that a merged system be funded at the level of the highest-funded district, and that it would require mass busing.

Much of the controversy in Halifax is over money. Halifax County schools receive the least funding from local taxpayers, because it is the only one of the three systems that does not have a supplemental tax for schools. In 2012, Roanoke Rapids received $2 million in supplemental and local sales tax; Weldon received $1.5 million. Halifax, the largest system, received only the per-pupil local allotment that all three districts get.

Defenders of the status quo point out that Halifax schools do receive more federal funding that, they say, makes up for reduced local funds. But that money, targeted to high-poverty students, comes with tight restrictions. Lack of a supplemental tax means that Halifax schools can’t pay a teacher salary supplement, as Roanoke Rapids and surrounding school districts do.

Last year, the Halifax schools sought to correct the imbalance by holding a ballot referendum to add a supplemental tax. That sparked an aggressive anti-tax campaign led by a wealthy landowner who raised $50,000 to send out mailings and run newspaper and radio ads.

The supplemental tax was defeated, 71 percent to 29 percent.

‘Are we not worthy?’

Last June, Commissioner Manning stunned his fellow commissioners at a regular board meeting by calling for a vote on merger. The motion failed, 3-3, with Manning voting no. Manning said he wanted the board on record – the merger never had been voted on – and he knew he had the votes to defeat it.

But the merger topic keeps coming up. Last December, Asiah Joyner and another high school student appeared before the commissioners to complain that their schools lack the extracurricular activities, advanced placement courses, sports programs and other resources available in the city schools.

“So the question here is, why are we not being offered the same opportunity?” asked Northwest Halifax senior Trequan McGee. “Are we not worthy?”

On Dec. 3, an education summit will be hosted in the county by an advocacy group called the Coalition for Economic and Educational Security. Atkinson, the state superintendent, will participate, along with representatives from each of the school boards and a local charter school.

Atkinson says she hopes to bring numbers showing the financial effects of merger. She declares herself neutral on the issue, saying that’s a decision of the local community. Merger could result in reduced federal funding, she said, because each system now receives a federal funding stream. But she also cautions that the present course is unsustainable, because all three systems are experiencing declining enrollment.

For the short term, Atkinson prescribes a solution for the Halifax schools of more pre-kindergarten education and a balanced school calendar – essentially, year-round schools – to help children catch up to grade level. The legislature would have to appropriate more money, and the school board would have to make the changes to the school calendar.

After the UNC report in 2011, the Halifax commissioners hired an outside consulting group to look at the school situation and make recommendations for improvements in each system. The report made 39 recommendations that included sharing of services and facilities among the districts, closing under-capacity schools and other cost-saving measures that, if fully implemented, would save the three districts $11.5 million over five years.

The report stopped short of recommending merger, but called instead for the county and local boards to work more collaboratively. Leaders of the commissioners and the school boards have met several times since.

James Pierce, chair of the county commissioners, said it’s a plus that all parties are talking – that hasn’t happened before – but he does not hold out much hope for concrete results.

A former member of the Halifax school board, Pierce said he sees merger as the only way to eliminate the inequities in the schools. He said only about a third of the county’s children were getting a good education.

“One thing’s for sure, we can’t continue the way we have the last 50 years or so and expect to be prosperous in Halifax County,” he said. “We’ve got to give more than half our students – really, more than a third of our students – a quality education.”

Meanwhile, Clintona and Floyd Joyner, proud parents of 2013 Halifax High School graduate Asiah Joyner, worry about whether their daughter will catch up at Howard University.

“I just hope and pray she doesn’t get too tired of the struggle,” Clintona Joyner said. “I don’t want her to feel so totally overwhelmed that she says, ‘Gosh, Mama. I don’t want to continue this.’”

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