High-stakes search at DPS

Dec. 21, 2013 @ 05:02 PM

The Durham Public Schools Board of Education embraced a difficult decision Thursday night when it ratified an agreement to usher Superintendent Eric Becoats out of the job he had held for more than three years.

The board might well have dismissed the superintendent for cause, but such cases are difficult and potentially costly to sustain.  Instead, they negotiated a settlement that gives Becoats close to $300,000 so that the board can move on to the new leadership the district so acutely needs.

And how it moves on will be critical to a district that has struggled for years with both the perception and, sadly, the reality that it fails to properly educate too many students.

To be fair to Becoats, the district has made progress in his tenure -- but it has been dishearteningly slow and, increasingly in the past eight months, undercut by turmoil surrounding his actions.

Now, the board has an opportunity to recruit a leader who can be transformative, who will turn the highest per-pupil spending in the state into performance that rises well above the nether regions of the state’s school districts.

It is disappointing the board vote to accept Becoats’ resignation split along racial lines.  Because members were silent on their reasons for voting yea or nay, and because deliberations on the resignation took place in closed session, it’s impossible to know the motivations and reasoning of anyone’s vote. But the split unavoidably raises the specter of long-standing tension between the board and the African American community.

That said, it was encouraging to see the vote devoid of any rancor or hostility, at least in public. And the board proceeded cordially through the remainder of the public meeting. 

We hope that apparent collegiality is a prelude to the board’s pulling together to concur on its goals in finding a new superintendent. The process demands the best thinking and intense engagement of the members individually and collectively.

The process needs to be ambitious and demanding. Durham needs -- demands -- a superintendent with a track record of improving low-performing schools, a superintendent whose background includes work in the trenches of classrooms and building leadership, a superintendent who can recruit and motivate a team with a laser-like commitment to success, from the kindergarten classroom to the halls of the Fuller Building. A commitment to transparency and integrity, with perhaps a touch of humility thrown in, we now realize is critical, too.

The school system is at a crossroads. We must pick up the pace of improvement – and certainly cannot lose ground.  We must lure families who have fled back to the schools – with sound, top-grade instruction and a refusal to let any outside-of-school distractions deprive boys and girls, young men and women, of their right to a sound education.

The school board made a significant decision Thursday night. Their next moves will be even more significant, and will call for A-plus execution. The community should insist on that – and support it.