New board member surprised by opposition

May. 23, 2014 @ 03:31 PM

Mike Lee, one of three newly elected members of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education, on Friday seemed shocked.

The night before, three board members – two of them on their way out – showed “fierce opposition” to a plan to let Lee and his fellow newcomers take part in the superintendent search process.

Lee defeated Omega Curtis Parker for the District 1 seat on May 6. He said he expected a divided vote, but nothing like what he saw from his predecessor (who offered to quit now rather than waiting) and Fredrick Davis (who wondered if he’d be breaking the law by refusing to participate).

“I was surprised it was so vicious,” Lee said. “It was more vicious than I thought it would be.”

The board voted 4-3 on Thursday to allow Lee, Sendolo Diaminah and Matt Sears to sign confidentiality agreements and join the process in a non-voting, advisory capacity.

Davis, Parker and Minnie Forte-Brown, the board’s vice chair, voted against the idea.

“It’s disappointing they didn’t want new board members to even listen to the interviews,” said Lee, who thinks opposition was driven by egos and an effort to cling to power as some members cycle off the board.

“I just want to hear the answers,” he said. “I want to listen to the person I’m going to be helping lead the school district. I don’t have to say anything.”

The pushback on the proposal also surprised Chairwoman Heidi Carter.

“I expected it would be a fairly quick vote with two different perspectives or we would just come together on it,” she said on Friday.

Despite the contentious debate Thursday, Carter’s confident the board will unify to pick the best person for the job.

“This board has demonstrated that it can have vigorous debate about an issue and, once the decision is made, board members respect that decision,” she said.

However, Davis said he wouldn’t participate in the process if newly elected members join the board during interviews with superintendent candidates.

That, Carter said, would be disappointing.

“It’s very important to me to have the wisdom and perspective of those currently serving in the role of school board members,” Carter said. 

Board member Natalie Beyer said she favored the chance to build a bridge between new and old members, allowing for more community input on an important decision.

“If we include them in an advisory role, that’s reflective of the voters and the citizens of this community,” Beyer said. “If we don’t, I think that doesn’t send the best message about collaboration to our candidates for the superintendent job and about the health and functionality of this board and this community.”

Forte-Brown said allowing the newly elected members into the process sets a bad precedent.

“Their job is to work with the superintendent, regardless of who it is,” she said. “Regardless of whether you have input on who the superintendent is, your job as a board member is to forge a relationship with that person.”

Sears, who won the District 3 seat and replaces Nancy Cox, wouldn’t talk about the board’s heated debate.

However, he did say he is “excited about being a part of the process.”

“One of the primary responsibilities on the board is to supervise the person that comes out of this process,” he said. “I am confident candidates will want to talk with and get to know the board that will be providing supervision and feedback over the next several years.”

Diaminah, the victor in the District 2 race to replace Davis, was the only board newcomer to attend Thursday’s meeting.

Diaminah said in an interview during a break in the meeting that he agrees with supporters of the proposal that it “would be best if we could all participate.”