by Dr. Terry Stoops
Former Director of the Center for Effective Education, John Locke Foundation
When county governments are sued, taxpayers pay the price. In Halifax County, that price is $15,485 and growing.
Earlier this month, Superior Court Judge Russell Duke dismissed a lawsuit brought by Coalition for Education and Economic Security, the Halifax County Branch of the NAACP, and a handful of Halifax County residents. In Silver et al vs. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, the plaintiffs asked the courts to force the county commission to merge the three districts in the county — Halifax County Schools, Roanoke Rapids Graded School District, and Weldon City Schools.
As I detailed in a Carolina Journal column earlier this year, the plaintiffs and their attorneys from the UNC Center for Civil Rights argued that merging the districts would produce academic benefits, operational efficiencies, racial and socioeconomic balance, and a precedent for legal challenges to districts in other states.
Judge Duke concluded that "no law supports the Plaintiffs’ claim" that the operation of three districts within the county undermined the NC Constitution’s guarantee of a sound basic education. I contend that the public policy basis for merging the districts is no more compelling than the legal one. I have found very little empirical evidence that school districts produce better financial, organizational, or academic outcomes after a merger than before.
Even so, I suspect that the Plaintiffs will appeal Judge Duke’s decision, hoping to find state or federal judges that are sympathetic to their claims. Therein lies the problem. Keeping this lawsuit in the courts imposes relatively little cost to UNC Center for Civil Rights attorneys, who have access to considerable resources. Obviously, the center draws upon the expertise of UNC School of Law administrators, faculty, and students, as well as from supporters from private firms and government agencies. Moreover, the center’s website provides a long list of allied state and national philanthropies, political advocacy organizations, and research groups.
On the other hand, the Halifax County Board of Commissioners was forced to retain outside counsel to represent them in this case. So far, the county’s legal fees total $15,485, and Halifax County taxpayers will be footing the bill. That preliminary figure does not include services rendered since the beginning of the year and certainly will not cover the cost of representing the county in the appellate court or beyond. It also does not account for the time and resources provided by the Halifax County attorney, his paralegal, or ancillary county staff.
UNC Center for Civil Rights attorneys say that they "are in the process of strategizing next steps, including the possibility of appeal." I suspect that most elected officials and taxpayers in Halifax County hope that the UNC attorneys will choose not to take this lawsuit any further. There is much work to be done to improve public education in Halifax County and the prospect of additional legal battles is an unnecessary and very costly impediment to that effort.
Acronym of the Week
CEES — Coalition for Education and Economic Security
Quote of the Week
"Acknowledging Article IX, Chapter 2(2) of the Constitution of the State of North Carolina that allows the assignment to local government of some responsibility for the financial support of the free public schools, the Plaintiffs cite no provision of the Constitution of the State of North Carolina that is a clear foundation for nor offer any compelling authority supportive of the proposition that it is the constitutional responsibility of the Defendant to implement and maintain a public education system for Halifax County."
– Superior Court Judge W. Russell Duke, Jr. dismissal in Silver et al vs. Halifax County Board of Commissioners, filed February 2, 2016
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