Bertie gains Unitary Status

Published 9:28 am Tuesday, September 1, 2009

RALEIGH – After 42 years, decisions are back in the hands of the elected school board and the voting public in Bertie County.

Late last week, the United States District Court entered an order for full Unitary Status for the Bertie County Board of Education. The order ended 42 years in which the school district was forced to answer to the U.S. Department of Justice on all matters and returned the reins of the district back to its elected leaders.

“Over the last 42 years, neither the school board nor the electorate has governed schools in Bertie County,” said Bertie County Schools Superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger. “They have been governed by the federal government. What this does is return that power back to the school board and the voting public. That’s important.”

In a decision handed down by U.S. District Court Judge Terrence W. Boyle, the court found that Bertie County has “(1) fully and satisfactorily complied with the Court’s desegregation orders for a reasonable period of time; (2) eliminated the vestiges of its past de jure discrimination to the extent practicable; and (3) demonstrated a good faith commitment to the whole of the Court’s orders and to those provisions of the law and the Constitution which were predicate for judicial intervention in the first instance…”

The order of full Unitary Status comes three years after the Court entered a Consent Order and Declaration of Partial Unitary Status in 2006. Under that order, the county had complied with most of the previous concerns of the Court. They included the areas of transportation, extra-curricular activities, faculty assignment and staff assignment.

The only two areas of concern left for the district were school facilities and student assignment.

The facility issue was settled at the end of the 2006-2006 academic year when the school district closed Askewville Elementary School and Merry Hill’s J.P. Law Elementary School. Those two schools were areas of concern by the Department of Justice. Askewville was because it was identified as a historically white school based on the composition of its student body and J.P. Law because of being identified as a historically black school based on the state of its facility.

The resulting redrawing of attendance lines also helped the district achieve full Unitary Status.

According to the court order, “The United States and the Bertie County Board of Education are in agreement that the closure of J.P. Law and Askewville Elementary Schools and the subsequent adjustments to the school attendance zones have eliminated racially identifiable elementary schools within the Bertie County Public Schools.”

The order went on to say that during the 2008-09 school year, Aulander Elementary had a population that was 87.5 percent black, Colerain was 81.1 percent black, West Bertie was 87.2 percent black and Windsor was 83.2 percent black. The highest white population was in Colerain (15.5 percent) and Windsor (13 percent).

The other area of concern was student assignment where Board Attorney Carolyn Waller said principals in the district sometimes clustered white students with “what may have been good intentions” but left classrooms that were all black which is unconstitutional.

To change that, principals were directed to no longer take race into account in any student assignment. Once that was achieved, the problem was alleviated.

There are a number of immediate impacts the ruling has on the Bertie County Board of Education, according to Dr. Zullinger and Waller.

In addition to the district being totally governed locally, the school system will also no longer be required to present an annual report to the U.S. Department of Justice and will be exempt from the legal fees that have mounted by having to make the report and other various activities required by the order.

Another major change will be the affect of race in decision-making by the school district officials and governing body.

“Before, every decision made had to be done so with the issue of race being taken into account,” Waller said. “Now that the system has received Unitary Status, they can no longer take race into account in any decision that is made. Race cannot be a factor because that would be illegal.”

Bertie County operated two school systems for a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954 in the Brown vs. Board of Education case that segregating students by race was unconstitutional.

The U.S. Justice Department went to court in 1967 to dissolve the classroom race barrier, a federal judge agreed the following year, and in 1969 the school board adopted a plan bringing students of both races into common buildings.

In 2001, the Department of Justice came back into the district’s operation because of the situation that existed at Askewville and J.P. Law.