Questions of leadership

Nov. 23, 2013 @ 05:59 PM

What are to make of signals from the Fuller Building, headquarters of the 33,000-student Durham Public School system?

Thursday night, the school board concluded its annual review of Superintendent Eric Becoats’ performance with a message that, while somewhat ambiguous, could hardly be called a ringing vote of confidence in the man who has led the system since 2010.

The board emerged from a lengthy closed session to announce it had decided unanimously not to extend his contract past its 2016 end date, and that he would receive no performance-based salary increase.

The decisions are not conclusive indicators of the board’s sentiments about Becoats. But some points stand out.

Becoats has in both his previous annual evaluations has received one-year extensions of his contract.

He said he agrees with the no-raise decision, given teachers are not receiving raises from the state. That might have seemed nobler were it not that in his first two years on the job, his salary jumped 17 percent to $223,000 – in a period when state budget decisions and the recession meant teachers saw little if any increase in their pay.

The board, indicting at the time it was pleased with his performance, no doubt thought the contract extension and salary increases affirmed that. But the contrast with this year surely underscores the extent to which Becoats has seen the board’s faith in him erode.

And no wonder.

Since March, Becoats has flirted with the superintendency in Prince George’s County, Md.; been reprimanded for his use of a school activity bus to transport family and friends over high-school graduation weekend; and had his district-issued credit card terminated because of the board’s concerns over his spending on travel and meals.

In the Prince George’s case, Becoats told his employers he had withdrawn – but didn’t mention he did so after the board there decided to continue its search after interviewing him and two other candidates.

DPS board chair said she was “sorry he was less than transparent about this.”
After the bus incident, Carter, speaking for the board, said “we strongly disapprove of the use or public resources for private or personal benefit for any of our …. Staff, by our top leader especially.”

And before the board terminated his credit card, when the superintendent’s spending first came to their attention, she said “Based on what I know so far, the superintendent’s spending patterns and the purchase of some items disturb me greatly.”

Those are neither deeds of the superintendent nor words of the board chair likely to inspire public trust.

The board clearly is troubled. Becoats said Thursday night the board used a new assessment procedure this year and that there was disagreement about performance measures. That suggests a less than warm relationship.

We wish the board would be forthright in sharing its evaluation of our superintendent. Leading the public schools is one of the most important public posts in the county. Particularly in light of deeply troubling signs, the public should know how that job is being done.