Divided N.C. Court of Appeals panel holds county commissioners bear no constitutional responsibility for right to sound basic education
RALEIGH, NC – On Tuesday, September 19, a divided panel of the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled in Silver et al v. Halifax County Board of Commissioners that county commissioners have no duty or responsibility to ensure that students are provided a sound basic education. Judge Donna Stroud, joined by Judge Lucy Inman, wrote that the constitutional responsibility for education lies exclusively with the State, and that the only forum for claims involving the constitutional right to education is the now 20+ years old original Leandro case.
Chief Judge Linda McGee dissented, explaining that the “plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged that the local boards of county commissioners must disburse local revenues in a way that does not violate the constitutional right to a sound basic education established by our Supreme Court in Leandro I, and must be able to be held accountable for their failure to do so.”
The Coalition for Education and Economic Security (CEES), the Halifax County Branch of the NAACP, and three parents and guardians of schoolchildren in Halifax are plaintiffs in the case and are represented by the UNC Center for Civil Rights, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and Latham & Watkins LLP.
“This case is of great importance for African American and other minority schoolchildren who are racially isolated and deserve the opportunity to receive a sound, basic education as guaranteed by the state constitution. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law respectfully disagrees with the Court’s decision. We will carefully consider our next steps while continuing to fight for equal access to education in Halifax County and throughout the state,” said Brenda Shum, Director of the Educational Opportunities Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Rebecca Copeland, President of CEES, said “While we are disappointed and would have loved a favorable ruling from the Court of Appeals, we are not without hope. C.E.E.S. will continue this fight until all children in Halifax County have the opportunity for a sound basic education and until Halifax County leaders implement an efficient and fiscally sound delivery model for education within the county. We are exploring all options, including appeal and will continue to confer with our legal team.”
David Harvey, President of the Halifax County NAACP agreed. He added, “Despite the ruling today, this lawsuit and our organizing around it has lifted the hopes of parents and community advocates in Halifax County who believe that change is possible and that the future will be better in this poor and struggling part of our state. And we have seen the beginnings of real changes in our schools because of these efforts.”
The plaintiffs are meeting with their lawyers to discuss next steps. Mark Dorosin, Managing Attorney at the UNC Center for Civil Rights, argued the case at the Court of Appeals.
“We will be considering all options, including a possible appeal to the North Carolina Supreme Court, to which are clients are entitled because there was a dissent,” Dorosin said. “It is worth remembering that the Court of Appeals upheld the State’s motion to dismiss in the very first Leandro decision, and that the Supreme Court reversed that ruling and recognized the constitutional right to a sound basic education.”
The case was filed in August 2015, and alleged that the Halifax County Board of Commissioners’ support, maintenance, and funding of the three racially disparate, low performing school districts to serve less than 7,000 students creates an insurmountable obstacle to academic achievement and educational opportunity, in violation of the North Carolina Constitution. The complaint highlights the adverse educational impacts and outcomes that result from the county’s ineffective and wasteful distribution of resources among the districts, which produces inequitable access to critical educational needs like learning materials, curricular offerings, safe and adequate facilities, and certified, high quality teachers and principals. In addition, the persistent racial division among the districts stigmatizes children in a manner that further impedes equitable educational opportunities.