Durham schools superintendent resigns

Eric Becoats cites differences over governing district
Dec. 19, 2013 @ 10:23 PM

Eric Becoats, embattled superintendent of Durham Public Schools, tendered his resignation to the Board of Education on Thursday night.

He cited fundamental differences about how to best govern the district.

Board members voted 4-3 to accept the resignation, which is effective Dec. 31.

His departure comes after a series of missteps during the last nine months, most recently including the discovery of an extra $15 million in the district’s unassigned fund balance – or “rainy day fund” - that surprised board members.

Becoats will receive a one-time severance payment of $298,072, minus taxes, retirement and other deductions. The money will come from the school district’s surprisingly more robust unrestricted fund balance.

The resignation agreement spells out that neither Becoats nor the board will disparage each other and that Becoats’ personnel file will be closed. No other documents pertaining to his performance will go into the file.

The board unanimously appointed Hugh Osteen, deputy superintendent of operational services, to serve as interim superintendent.

School Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter sought to reassure the community.

“I know there might be bit of uncertainty and challenge as we move forward with this change in leadership,” Carter said. “I think it’s important that we all understand that we will not falter. We will meet this challenge and the reason why is because Durham Public Schools is strong.”

The board’s vote fell along racial lines with the four white members – Carter, Natalie Beyer, Nancy Cox and Leigh Bordley - voting to accept the resignation and its three black members – Minnie Forte-Brown, Frederick Davis and Omega Curtis Parker - voting against it.

Afterward, Becoats took the podium to thank both his supporters and detractors.

He read a long list of accomplishments that took place during his three-plus years as superintendent and gave special thanks to Forte-Brown, who was board chair at the time he was hired in April 2010.

“Your leadership, your guidance, your support and unwavering devotion for public education can never be surpassed,” Becoats said, his voice cracking slightly.

The Baltimore native said he intends to remain in Durham.

“As a taxpaying member of this community, Durham, where I plan to remain, where my son received a great high school education at Hillside High School that adequately prepared him for college, I will continue my work to support young people because that’s what I do,” he said.

The discovery of the $15 million in the district’s coffers angered and embarrassed board members who had gone to county commissioners to ask for extra local funding after being told the account would be spent down to $4 million.

The account is now flush with $19.7 million, which was discovered during the school district’s annual audit.

Commissioners said the misrepresentation of the school district’s finance has damaged trust between the county and the school district. They warned that the upcoming budget will receive tighter scrutiny.

Even before the fund balance debacle, Becoats was in trouble with the board.

In June, Becoats found himself in hot water for hiring a school bus driver and a school system activity bus to take family and friends to private events, including a trip to The Streets at Southpoint mall.

He received a reprimand from the board for violating board policies and state law regarding the use of school activity bus, although the board found he did not intend to violate the policy or law.

Becoats’ credit card was terminated in October after an examination of the superintendent’s credit card records by The Herald-Sun found more than $20,000 worth of charges over a 12-month period.

The board’s growing concern about Becoats also was evident last month during the superintendent’s annual review. The board unanimously voted to not give him a pay raise or extend his contract, which was set to expire in June 2016.

Still, some point to April for the start of Becoats’ troubles.

That’s when he told Carter that he had withdrawn from consideration for a superintendent’s job in Prince George’s County, Maryland, without mentioning that the search had been reopened.

“I learned about this later when I read some articles from PGC news services,” Carter said at the time. “This seems like an important detail to me, one that might have influenced his decision. I’m sorry he was less than transparent with me about this.”