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School Merger Talk Splits Halifax

The idea of merging school districts in one of the state's poorest counties is gaining traction.
Dave DeWitt

Most school districts in North Carolina are county-wide. Mergers of county and city schools occurred mostly in the 1970s through the 1990s, driven by cost and desegregation orders.

But one county remained steadfast against consolidation. Halifax County in northeastern North Carolina has three separate school districts… Roanoke Rapids, Weldon City, and Halifax – for just 8,000 total students. By comparison, if Wake County was divided into a comparable number, there would be 53 different school districts.

The idea of merger in Halifax County is gaining some traction. Yesterday, people packed into the Halifax County Commissioners meeting to argue the possibility.

Stepping into the Halifax County courthouse feels like stepping back in time. The building itself is listed on the national register of historic places. It may have seen better days – with worn red carpets and stained ceiling tiles, but it’s still a striking classical revival building, standing tall on a quiet downtown street.

People have packed the second-floor courtroom to hear Mark Dorosin. He’s an attorney with the UNC Center for Civil Rights and the co-author of a report that says the three school districts in Halifax are segregated and unequal.

Mark Dorosin: "And what you end up with having, schools, schools, which were supposed to be the promise, the leading promise of creating an inclusive society, going back to Brown, schools instead become the tool that further divide us and entrenches these divisions."

Dorosin says the demographics tell the story. Roanoke Rapids Graded School district is 73 percent white, in a county that’s 39 percent white. Weldon City and Halifax County Schools are both almost 100 percent Black, and 90 percent poor. And by almost any measure, Halifax County is the worst-performing district in the state. It is the only one under court order to improve student academic performance.

Mike Beebe is a math teacher and cross country coach at Northwest Halifax High School.

Mike Beebe: "Every day I walk onto a campus that has horribly inadequate facilities and can’t provide children with a sound, basic education."

Funding was a contentious topic throughout the meeting. Those who don’t want a merger wore red ribbons on their lapels and warned about tax increases. According to state law, the tax rate would have to be raised for those in the Halifax County School district to match supplemental taxes already being paid in Weldon and Roanoke rapids.

Others, like David King, a father of three kids in the Roanoke Rapids graded School district, dismissed the idea that one diverse school district would improve academic performance.

David King: "It’s just common sense that you don’t educate our children by having someone stand at the schoolhouse door with a clipboard and a pencil marking how many black faces and how many white faces walk through the door."

For some, it wasn’t about funding or education. County Commissioner J. Rieves Manning, Jr. took the unusual step of speaking to his fellow commissioners as an “interested citizen”. Standing tall at the podium in his black cowboy boots, he pointed at school maps from the early and mid-20th century that showed the district lines hadn’t moved since before the Civil Rights Era. Then he turned his attention to the current maps – ones the UNC Center for Civil Rights lawyers had used to show a pattern of racial separation.

J. Rieves Manning, Jr.: "This whole report is based on gerrymandering. There is no gerrymandering. Gerrymandering is where you change the boundary lines. These lines have not changed. This is the point I’m trying to make, is that their basis of the gerrymandering is incorrect and so that brings into question the credibility of their whole report."

Manning promised he’d fight any attempt at merger, and two other board members are likely to join him. That means an even 3-to-3 split.

No vote has been scheduled for any time in the near future, but Board Chair James Pierce promised ongoing discussions on merging the three school districts in Halifax County - an issue that is likely to continue to divide this small community for years to come.

Dave DeWitt is WUNC's Feature News Editor. As an editor, reporter, and producer he's covered politics, environment, education, sports, and a wide range of other topics.
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