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Students sue, say poor county’s school funds unfairly shared

April 16, 2018

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s top court heard arguments Monday about whether county officials should share the blame if schools are so underfunded that some children don’t get the chance for the sound, basic education required by the state constitution.

County governments are primarily responsible for providing buildings and infrastructure, but local appropriations totaled $2.7 billion in operating funds for things like teacher salaries during 2014-15.

The case is the first to address whether local governments have a duty alongside the state to provide every child “an opportunity to receive a sound basic education,” as the state Supreme Court determined in a landmark 1997 case named after one of the students who sued, Leandro.

Parents and students in Halifax County contend county commissioners haven’t fairly distributed local tax money that they control, forcing some students to struggle with fewer education offerings and dilapidated school buildings. Halifax County, unusual in North Carolina, has three school districts.

“The county created and entrenched inequities between Halifax County Public Schools and the other two districts,” attorney Mark Dorosin told the justices.

Students in the Halifax County Public Schools are 85 percent black and 94 percent qualified free or reduced-price lunch, a measure for poverty level, in 2014-15, attorneys for the students said in court filings.

Weldon City Schools students were 94 percent black and 89 percent qualified for food aid. Students in the Roanoke Rapids Graded School District were 26 percent black, 65 percent white and 62 percent were eligible for nutrition assistance.

County commissioners are at fault in part, attorneys for the parents said, because they have stuck with a method of distributing sales tax revenues that resulted in Roanoke Rapids schools receiving about $4.5 million and Weldon schools $2.5 million in added local revenue between 2006 and 2014. The county school system got nothing even though families there also paid sales taxes, attorneys for the suing parents said.

Property owners in the Weldon and Roanoke Rapids school districts pay a supplemental property tax that generates more than $1 million a year for each district, attorneys said. The county district is not allowed to do the same.

Merging the school districts could equalize the disparities, Dorosin said. But county commissioners have refused to adopt recommendations offered by consultants hired in 2011 to save money by leaving separate school districts in place but consolidating expenses like food service, maintenance and busing operations, he said.

A divided state Court of Appeals ruled last year that the Leandro case established that state officials have the constitutional obligation to provide basic educational opportunity for every North Carolina child, so Halifax County parents should take their complaints to the governor and legislators rather than county officials.

Lawyers for Halifax County commissioners said the high court should agree with the lower appeals court that ruled county officials aren’t responsible for funding shortcomings, even for funds they control. And if school board officials think they’re getting short shrift in county money, it’s up to them and not students to sue.

“They have to be responsible for deciding, ‘Hmm, is this enough money?’ Or do we need to go to court?′ That’s on them,” county attorney Glynn Rollins said.

The General Assembly is considering a law that would bar school districts from suing county commissions when annual funding disagreements can’t be settled through a joint public meeting and formal mediation. The new law could create a formula based on student population and inflation deciding how much funding a county commission provides if negotiations fail.

Under current law, a school board submits a proposed budget to commissioners annually by May 15. County commissioners then approve a budget ordinance as the fiscal year begins July 1.

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio on Twitter at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/emery%20dalesio

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