Judge approves desegregation plan

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 16, 2006

WINDSOR – The plan to close at least two elementary schools in Bertie County has been approved.

On Tuesday in Elizabeth City, Judge Terrence Boyle, United States District Court for the Eastern District of North Carolina, ruled in favor of a consent order as part of a desegregation plan submitted by the Bertie County Board of Education to the U.S. Department of Justice.

The consent order is a similar to a plea bargain between the Department of Justice and the Bertie School Board in an effort to settle an ongoing desegregation lawsuit.

On Dec. 22, the Bertie School Board submitted a dual-option plan as part of the consent order. One option called for the closings of Askewville and J.P. Law elementary schools by the end of the 2006-07 academic year and redraw the attendance lines for the four remaining K-5 schools (Aulander, Colerain, West Bertie and Windsor).

Another elementary school, Aulander, is added to the closure list in option two. There, the option calls for closing Aulander Elementary by the end of the 2008-09 academic year if funds become available to construct a new elementary school to serve 450 students. The proposed new elementary school would be constructed and opened by 2009 if there are sufficient funds identified and specifically earmarked for the project by no later than the end of the 2006-07 academic year.

“We are very please that Judge Boyle accepted the plan,” Brent Todd, spokesperson for Bertie County Public Schools, said. “We can now move our system forward in an effort to gain full unitary status.”

The school board’s plan has been met with stiff opposition. A public comment session built into a Dec. 19 joint meeting between the Bertie Board of Commissioners and the school board was heavily laced with negative public comments. In the meantime, a grassroots group, Community Schools n SOS, spent the better part of the last three months gathering names on a petition as well as undertaking a letter-writing campaign to federal court officials in an effort to keep the schools open.

“We are very disappointed with Judge Boyle’s ruling,” Dean Stephens, an SOS spokesperson, said Tuesday night. “We can only hope this decision will not have a long-term impact on the children of Bertie County.”

It was the funding of a new elementary school that was a cause for concern among members of the Board of Commissioners at the Dec. 19 joint meeting. They questioned that proposal, especially in lieu of the board recently borrowing $6 million for the construction of a new central middle school. That school, which will combine C.G. White and Southwestern middle schools, is scheduled to open in 2007.

The Commissioners made it clear at the Dec. 19 meeting that the county was in dire need of a new high school if and when the next round of state school bond money became available.

“We still stand behind that; we need a new high school,” commission chairman Rick Harrell said. “In regards to new facilities, we need to address the high school first.”

The now approved desegregation plan will hopefully bring to an end a 39-year-old civil rights case filed on June 16, 1967, in United States v. Bertie County Board of Education.

The original complaint alleged the Bertie County Board of Education had failed to take adequate measures to eliminate the dual, segregated school system as it was required to do under Brown v. Board of Education and subsequent court decisions.

Heery International, a Raleigh-based firm, was hired to make recommendations addressing the lifespan of each facility; the capacity of each school to provide the programs needed for students; the economic feasibility and wisdom of renovating any facilities that are in poor condition; and strategic alternatives to the current assignment of students, including options designed to provide cost savings to the district. Their favored recommendation was to close Askewville, Aulander and J.P. Law and build a new elementary school capable of housing 450 students.