Monday, 12 March 2018 17:19

County legal fees expected to rise as school suit goes to NC high court

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Hodge addresses the board. Hodge addresses the board.

With a lawsuit against the board of commissioners on school funding set to be argued in the state Supreme Court next month, county officials say its legal fees are expected to double.

Discussion of the matter came up today after Bill Hodge, of the Coalition for Education and Economic Security, made comments during the community issues portion of the meeting on the academic performance and funding issues for the three county school systems.

Commissioner Patrick Qualls told Hodge following his presentation the lawsuit initiated by CEES, the county branch of the NAACP and three parents and guardians of children in the county school system has cost the county nearly $50,000 in legal fees thus far. “That’s money that could have possibly been spent on education and not silly lawsuits. It’s going to continue to go up.”

He said during a break in the meeting, “It’s been ruled against twice. It continues to add up for something silly. The Constitution is clear on this.”

County Manager Tony Brown said he expects the costs to double as the county prepares to argue the case before the state Supreme Court.

The State Court of Appeals in September upheld the lower court’s dismissal of the lawsuit in Halifax County, disagreeing with the plaintiffs commissioners failed to meet its obligation to provide the opportunity to receive a sound basic education to all children.

A dissenting court of appeals opinion, however, accused the county of not meeting its obligations, saying Halifax County Schools and Weldon City Schools lack the necessary resources to provide fundamental educational opportunities to the children in their school districts.

In his comments to the board, Hodge said, “This month is the ninth anniversary of Judge (Howard) Manning’s academic genocide wake up call.”

He said the state’s public school students are tested annually for grade level proficiency.

The county school system, he said, ranked 112 but was in the top 10 for improving districts while Weldon City Schools ranked 113 and was in the top 20 for improving districts. “Both districts had growth all three years — near the bottom but achieving successful measurable student improvement.”

Hodge told the board Roanoke Rapids saw a 1 percent proficiency score over the last three years, which was below the state average. “Thus Roanoke Rapids fell from the 69th to 88th position but still the area’s highest proficiency score. Seven of the bottom 15 districts are us and our neighbors.”

The top districts, Hodge said, average 44 percent poverty and 71 percent proficiency while the bottom 10 districts average 99 percent poverty and 38 proficiency.

Charter schools are also included in what Hodge described as roadblocks to academic success. “If a district has a significant number of students transferring to charter schools loss of local revenue is a major problem,” he said. “When students transfer to charters, across the board expenses do not decrease proportionally but the full amount of local per pupil revenue is transferred.”

Hodge said Halifax County Schools have a 25.2 percent transfer rate; Weldon 22.4 percent and Roanoke Rapids 5.9 percent.

Hodge also addressed funding, saying Halifax County commissioners allocated $627 per pupil. “Neighboring counties students receive an average more than double this amount and the state average is an additional 14 percent higher than the neighbors. Halifax County overspent on debt service resulting in insufficient current expense or local funding. Current funding levels severely limit academic improvement programs.”

Said Hodge: “School district and county leadership need plans to refurbish unutilized existing capacity in all three systems — a regional approach. Commissioners purchased a solution for these issues and paid $112,000 for the answers.”

He was referring to the Evergreen Solutions report which recommended $11.5 million in operational savings which he said “could be recycled back into our districts classrooms and $3.5 million continued yearly savings.”

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