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Survey shows community has low opinion about DPS. Does perception match reality?

Residents don't feel as good as they did a year ago about the Durham Public Schools but are willing to pay higher property taxes to improve the school system, according to the annual Durham City and County Resident Survey.

Only 21 percent of residents who responded to the 2017 survey agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that DPS ensures quality education for students. A year ago 25 percent of residents either agreed of strongly agreed with that statement.

A majority of respondents — 50.6 percent — either disagreed of strongly disagreed with the statement while 28.7 percent were neutral.

But 43 percent of respondents said they would be willing to pay higher taxes to improve public school facilities and 49 percent said they would take a tax hike to support schools by hiring more teachers and improving teacher pay.

A total of 609 residents -- 406 from the city and 203 from the county -- completed the survey conducted by Kansas-based ETC Institute, a firm that specializes in the design and administration of market research for governmental organizations.

Not all residents responded to every question. Respondents were asked whether they agree, strongly agree, neutral, disagree or strongly disagree with survey statements.

The survey had a margin of error or plus or minus 3.97 percent at the 95 percent confidence level.

When asked if they believe DPS attracts high quality teachers, only 20 percent percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed compared to 23 percent in 2016. Meanwhile 43.5 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed and 36.8 were neutral.

A similar downward trend was found when residents were asked if they think DPS manages its budget well. Only 20 percent agreed or strongly agreed compared to 24 who agreed or strongly agreed in 2016. And 42.9 percent either disagreed or strongly disagreed while 36.7 were neutral.

Only 19.3 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that believe DPS has effective K-12 leadership while 39.6 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed and 40.8 percent were neutral.

The findings were shared with the school board earlier this week doing a joint meeting with County Commissioners.

The City and County have been conducting the survey for several years, but DPS was added last year.

School board Chairman Mike Lee said the survey findings are "frustrating."

"When you see a two-year decline as steep as some of those, it's frustrating," Lee said. "But it's also eye-opening to the narrative that's out there [about DPS]."

Lee said he is especially troubled by the question about transparency in education decision-making.

Only 18.4 percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that DPS is transparent in its decision making, while 31.3 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed. A majority of respondents — 40.3 percent — were neutral.

"That's really troubling to me because we've worked over the last four years to open up our budget and we've done a lot more things involving the community, town halls, taken board meetings out to the schools and so that's really troubling to me because we're trying to make those tweaks and the word about them may not be getting out," Lee said.

Earlier this month, the district promoted Mary Griffith, the district's magnet programs administrator, to the new position of director of marketing and community engagement.

District leaders see the move as one that will put DPS in better position to get the word out about district successes to change what they contend is an unfair, negative perception of the work that takes place in DPS schools.

Lee has said DPS has to do a better job of marketing itself to compete with charter schools that now educate nearly 7,000 students in Durham County. Because school funding follows students, DPS passes through nearly $20 million to charter schools throughout the region that are educating Durham students.

"We have to change the narrative," Lee said. "If we can pierce that negative narrative that's out there, I think we can really start to make some gains, which could result in higher marks on a survey such as this one."

School board Vice Chairman Steve Unruhe said the school district must do a better job of talking about its successes to counter the negative perception residents have about DPS.

"Clearly, we need to do a better job of talking about what we're doing," Unruhe said.

Unruhe said the belief that DPS was less than transparent, particularly when it came to its budget, was at one time true.

"That's what we've been trying to address," Unruhe said. "My hope is that it will be more apparent when we do this again we will see the result of some of that. I'm not surprised that with the transition in leadership that people would not have received the same kind of information about what we're doing with programs. I'm hoping with the new superintendent that what we're doing will be clear and that perception will change."

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the quickest way to change perception is to improve student achievement.

"We're going to do a better job of making sure there are other datas out there that folks are going to be able to judge the school system," Mubenga said.

DPS posted an overall proficiency rating of 46.4 percent on North Carolina end-of-grade and end-of-course tests last year.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645

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