A question of leadership

Sep. 04, 2013 @ 08:24 PM

A month ago, when the Durham Public Schools Board of Education reprimanded Superintendent Eric Becoats for his personal use of a school activity bus, we commented that there might be some room for benefit of the doubt on at least one point.

“An investigation by the system’s legal counsel “did not find that Dr. Becoats intended to violate policy or law,” we noted at the time. Our editorial added, “We have no reason to doubt that.”

As it turns out, there is more than good reason to doubt.

As emails and other documents the school system released last week show, Becoats did indeed know beforehand that state law and school board policy restricted the use of activity buses to transporting students.

As The Herald-Sun’s Ray Gronberg reported Saturday, Ann Majestic, the school board attorney, told Becoats, during a discussion of using the buses for another reason, it was “clear that activity buses are to be used to transport students to curricular and extracurricular activity.”

Majestic was advising the board as it pondered – and eventually rejected – allowing activity buses to ferry teachers to Raleigh for protests against education budget cuts.

The record of that advice would seem to undercut a statement the board released last month in announcing it had reprimanded Becoats for renting an activity bus to transport family members and friends to events and to the Streets of Southpoint mall.

In that statement, the board noted Becoats had said that only “after the use of the activity bus” was he “informed of the local and state policy” restricting their use.

Other than a couple of comments from Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter, the school system has been remarkably tight-lipped about these new developments.

What Carter has said underscores the gravity of the situation in which the board and the superintendent find themselves.

“Because I’m in no way an expert on all the legal issues surrounding education, I would have known that 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.”

As for the post-reprimand statement by Becoats that he was unaware of the policy before the illegal activity-bus usage, Carter said “at the time of 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.”

This is – at least – the second time Carter has indicated the superintendent has been, at the very least, less than forthcoming with his board. When he told Carter he was withdrawing as a candidate for superintendent in Prince George’s County, Md., he neglected to mention he made that decision only after the board there had decided to continue the search – in effect, passing over Becoats and two other candidates.

The superintendent’s flouting of the activity bus policy and his convenient omission in bringing relevant facts to the board’s attention are deeply disturbing, and hardly the action we would expect of a person we would expect to be a model of exemplary behavior for the students in the system he leads.

Disturbing, too, will be the board’s silence if it neither explains what measures it will take to ensure public confidence in the system’s leadership, nor explains why it is satisfied with the substance and appearances of that leadership.