Durham education’s future topic of forum

Apr. 23, 2014 @ 10:04 AM

The plight of teachers dominated the discussion Tuesday during a political forum for candidates seeking election to the Durham Public Schools Board of Education.

Candidates for the board’s District 1, 2 and 3 seats shared opinions on a wide range of subjects, including strategies to attract good teachers, career status (also known as tenure) for teachers, neighborhood schools and whether traditional public schools and charter schools can coexist.

The 100 or so people who attended the event also saw District 2 candidate Donald Hughes take a shot at challenger Sendolo Diaminah, calling him out for not voting in the 2010 election.

Hughes contends the election was critical because it marked the beginning of the Republican takeover of the General Assembly, which has led to the budget cuts Diaminah now rails against.

“I respect Mr. Diaminah and the [Durham] Association of Educators and the People’s Alliance for endorsing him, but the reality is he talks about an agenda in Raleigh, he did not participate in the last school board election or any school board election for that matter since he’s been in this community, particularly in 2010 when we saw the damage of what’s happening in Raleigh,” Hughes said.

Diaminah countered that he has been led efforts in the community to strengthen Durham schools and support teachers.

“That’s what I was doing, Donald,” Diaminah said. “I actually saved 185 jobs.”

Hughes also noted that Jimmy Doster, another District 2 candidate, is a member of the state’s Republican Party whose policies Hughes contends threaten the existence of public schools.

“My friend Mr. Doster is a part of that Republican Party that’s constantly challenged and threatened public education in our community,” Hughes said.

Doster said he’s a “uniter and not a divider” and that the board must work together to do what’s best for children. He said divisiveness along party lines and other such divisions holds Durham back.  

The forum was sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the Inter-Neighborhood Council (INC) of Durham and the Durham Council of PTAs.

John Martin, past president of the INC, moderated the event.

All three organizations are non-partisan and none endorses candidates.

When asked what Durham could do to attract good teachers at a time when many educators are having second thoughts about the profession, District 1 candidate Mike Lee said the board could work with local businesses to provide discounts to teachers.

On the subject of career status for teachers, District 2 candidate DeWarren Langley said teachers need protection from being fired without cause.

“What we need to do is allow our teachers to come into their classrooms, provide the instruction necessary and not worry about whether they’re going to have a job,” he said.

Terrence Scarborough, a District 2 candidate, said career status is critical for teachers because it gives them due process rights in the event they are fired.

“I personally believe that anyone willing to educate our students to the best of their ability, any employee, should have a voice,” Scarborough said.

The Durham board has joined Guilford County in a legal challenge against a Republican-backed law to end career status for state teachers by 2018.

District 3 candidate Lisa Gordon Stella said she is concerned about what will happen if career status is reinstated in North Carolina, because only teachers who currently have it likely would benefit from it.

“It will probably only be reinstated for those who currently have it,” Gordon Stella said. “And so, then we’ll have a two-tiered system of teachers and I wonder how that will affect the teacher relations that exist.”

Steve Gatlin, another District 3 candidate, said tenure gives teachers the confidence to make tough decisions without fear of losing their jobs.

“This is an easy question,” said Gatlin, who teaches at the charter school Voyager Academy. “I’m a classroom teacher and I need career status or tenure because I need protection from being arbitrarily fired.”

District 3 candidate Deborah Bryson said good teachers deserve tenure protection and salary increases.

“I think it’s important that we write letters to the governor and let him know that we don’t want our tenure teachers to not have an increase in their salaries,” Bryson said.

District 3 candidate Matt Sears said teachers need career status because we haven’t figure out how to properly evaluate them.

“We need to protect them from being arbitrarily dismissed,” Sears said.

District 1 incumbent Omega Curtis Parker said teachers need career status because without it “there is too much subjectivity in the hands of one person.”

District 1 challenger Thomas Poole agreed with Parker.

“The teachers need protection and I’m glad the school board [challenged the law],” Poole said.

Diaminah said due process is a right that we all deserve.

“I don’t think we should be looking at teachers and saying, ‘Well, they have a good thing, let’s take it away because I don’t have it,’” Diaminah said.

Doster said teachers should be paid better and maybe the state should create master teaching positions.

“That may be a way to develop a career track for our teachers,” Doster said.

Hughes said he supports the school board’s decision to challenge the law.

Incumbent Natalie Beyer is running unopposed in District 4. She did not participate in the forum because League of Women Voters rules prevent unopposed candidates from doing so.