Time for change at DPS

Dec. 07, 2013 @ 04:58 PM

It is time for a change at the top of the Durham Public Schools system – if not past time.

Last week’s financial revelations, and board members’ response, made that clear if the drumbeat of problems at the Fuller Building had not already done so.

School board member Natalie Beyer reflected with regret on the news the board received last week: The schools were a lot better off than the board had been led to believe and had led others to believe.

Normally, finding money is a good thing.

But Beyer’s lament summed up the position the board – not to mention the teachers, administrators and the 33,000 students they serve and educate – found itself in.

“We went with hat in hand to the commissioners, begging for scraps of change for our students, but to now know that that was, in fact, erroneous, and that we have $15 million extra dollars that we didn’t anticipate having,” Beyer said. “We could have employed people this year. We could have given teachers bonuses. We could have dreamed for Durham or we could have held tax rates down in tandem with our commissioners.”

Last spring, during budget negotiations, the school board pushed back hard at County Manager Mike Ruffin’s recommendation to allocate the same amount in local funds (the bulk of the school’s funding comes from the state) this fiscal year as last.

Pointing to a fund balance of only $4 million, which they thought was dangerously low, school officials pleaded for, and got, another $2.4 million.

Turns out, though, the system’s end-of-the-year audit showed a balance of $19.7 million.

The turn of events – which left an angry board chair Heidi Carter “feeling rather foolish,” she said – raises two possibilities. One is that Superintendent Eric Becoats knew of the looming discrepancy and failed to share it with the board, or he didn’t know – and was paying far too little attention to the system’s financial picture.

With a background in finance and administration, frankly, the latter seems unlikely. The board correctly is calling for further investigation to find out what happened.

Regardless, this is yet another example of the superintendent’s collapsing relationship with the board – and with the taxpayers and parents of the district.

The list is sickeningly familiar – flirting with another job opportunity, then being less than candid about his reasons for “withdrawing;” procuring a school activity bus to transport family and friends over high-school graduation weekend in violation of state law and school policy; having his district-issued credit card terminated because of the board’s concerns over his spending on travel and meals.

Meanwhile, the system’s performance is difficult to assess with the tumult over changes in how statewide tests are composed and scored. Perhaps to the superintendent’s poor luck, there certainly isn’t data in the scores that would repeat last year’s welcome news of no low-performing schools.

The board sent an unmistakable message at the conclusion of Becoats’ performance review last month with no contract extension and no salary increase. After last week’s fund-balance revelations, that message should be even clearer.

This is a broken relationship. Becoats’ performance as superintendent has become a serious distraction in a district that can afford nothing less than laser-like focus on improving its instructional results. It threatens the school’s standing with the purse-string-holding commissioners.

It is time for him to go.