Emails point to Becoats knowledge of bus policy
Emails and other documents indicate that Durham Public Schools Superintendent Eric Becoats knew beforehand that system policy sharply restricted the use of school activity buses of the type he rented in June for family outings.
Limits on the use of activity buses had commanded attention from the superintendent and other senior DPS officials as far back as the spring of 2011, when they were debating whether a teachers’ group could rent them to shuttle members to a state-budget protest in Raleigh.
School board attorney Ann Majestic on April 29, 2011, told Becoats that state law and system policy made it “clear that activity buses are to be used to transport students to curricular and extracurricular activity.”
Majestic said they “cannot be used to transport teachers to Raleigh for a rally, even though the cause is a good one.”
The activity-bus policy received superintendent-and-school-board levels of attention in the winter of 2011 and 2012, after Majestic vetoed the use of the buses to transport children to a summer reading academy at Duke University.
Duke officials through Vice President Phail Wynn had offered to pay for the use of buses, but Majestic’s view held until the school board in January 2012 revised system policy to say “nonprofit corporations and local government units” could use them.
Wynn complained about the previous restrictions directly to Becoats on Nov. 17, 2011, and Becoats responded by promising follow-up by his staff before that year’s Thanksgiving holiday.
On Nov. 21, 2011, he told Wynn “we have reviewed the state statutes related to the use of activity buses” and thought there was room in them for a local policy change to allow their use for Duke’s reading program.
Becoats’ knowledge of the activity-bus rules is an issue because the school board on Aug. 1 issued a statement announcing it had reprimanded the superintendent for having rented a bus for June 7 and June 8 family outings.
The statement quoted Becoats as saying that only “after the use of the activity bus” was he “informed of the local and state policy” restricting their use.
As is the case with all news releases, it was by no means certain whether Becoats actually uttered those words or whether they were written for him by aides, the system’s legal team or school board members.
School board members themselves would have been familiar with the policy via their debate on the January 2012 revision.
Board minutes show the revision was screened by the board’s Administrative Services Committee on Jan. 12, 2012, and approved by the full board on Jan. 26, 2012.
Then board’s then-chairwoman, Minnie Forte-Brown, told members before the Jan. 26, 2012, vote that the revision and other matters on the night’s consent agenda had been “thoroughly discussed in committee.”
DPS officials released the emails this week in response to a media Public Records Law request. The board’s present chairwoman, Heidi Carter, singled out Majestic’s April 2011 email to Becoats as the major find.
“At the time the original statement was put out about the superintendent’s reprimand, we were unaware of this communication between the superintendent and the attorney back in 2011,” Carter said.
It was not clear, however, whether there would be additional fallout for Becoats. Carter invoked state personnel-privacy law Friday in declining comment.
She did say the board “may already have begun [the] process” of discussing next steps. The board had a special closed-door meeting Thursday.
Majestic spoke up in 2011 as school board members were trying to marshal attendance at a rally in Raleigh to protest education-budget cuts under consideration by the Republican-majority N.C. General Assembly.
Board member Natalie Beyer helped drafted a letter for Forte-Brown and Durham Association of Educators President Kristy Moore to sign that among other things urged school personnel to make activity buses available to shuttle school employees, chaperones and students to Raleigh.
State statute allows school boards to buy activity buses “for the purpose of transporting pupils to and from athletic events and for other local school activity purposes.”
The law instructs boards to adopt a policy to govern the use of the buses. It also allows them to rent activity buses or normal school buses to groups “to provide transportation for the elderly.”
Durham’s activity bus policy, aside from now allowing rentals to nonprofits and local government, allows the buses to be used only for the “transportation of athletic teams or other student groups for regularly scheduled curricular or extracurricular activities.”
Becoats this July 28 vetoed the use of DPS buses to transport people to another protest against state budget cuts.
“Because I’m in no way an expert on all the legal issues surrounding education, I would have known we could transport students to a nonprofit [function] but might not have been aware we couldn’t transport adults, teachers, to an education-related function,” Carter said. “I would have known I could not have used the bus to transport my family members anywhere in town.”