The Durham Board of Education on Thursday, May 4, unanimously agreed to hire the N.C. School Board Association to help conduct its search for a superintendent to replace Bert L’Homme who will retire in August.
School board members cited their relationship with Allison Schafer, director of policy/legal counsel for the NCSBA and the nonprofit organization’s ability to conduct a search at a much lower cost than traditional search firms.
“They don’t strive to make a profit, they’re just doing this as a service for members,” said School board Vice Chairwoman Natalie Beyer. “I think they will serve us admirably and save us money during a difficult budget time.”
In addition to superintendent searches, the NCSBA supports school boards by providing legal assistance, risk management services, advocacy efforts and other such services.
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School board member Minnie Forte-Brown is president-elect of the NCSBA’s Board of Directors.
After the school board voted to hire the NCSBA, there were whispers among the crowd about whether Forte-Brown has a conflict of interest because she is an officer on its Board of Director.
In an interview, Ken Soo, the school district’s attorney, said there is no conflict because Forte-Brown does not receive compensation in her role as a member of the organization’s Board of Directors.
Before the vote, school Board member Matt Sears wondered if the NCSBA could effectively conduct a national search for DPS’ next superintendent.
“Can you convince me that they will reach out in ways that will get to L.A. Unified [Los Angeles Unified School District], Seattle, Texas, Florida,” Sears said. “I don;t have confidence that superintendents looking for a move, that Durham’s popping up on their Google searches.”
Forte-Brown said she’s already been contacted by superintendents from across the country who have expressed interest in the Durham job.
“It’s out there,” Forte-Brown said. “People know that Durham is looking.”
School board member Steve Unruhe said the board doesn’t need to be in a big rush to hire a new superintendent.
He said the people in the community he’s spoken with want the board to take its time and to pick a good superintendent.
“I think the several weeks we’ve had [discussing the search] already have been necessary for us to sort out what we need to do,” Unruhe said.
The board’s decision to hire the NCSBA came after a public input session to give residents a chance to speak out on the search for a new superintendent.
Page McCullough, speaking on behalf of the People’s Alliance’s education team, said Durham needs a superintendent who shares the community’s vision.
“We want someone who can help us continue building on a cohesive community-driven vision for improving academic achievement for all students, for hiring and retaining the best teachers and for a transparent budget,” McCullough said.
She also urged the board to hold more public input sessions in locations accessible to parents from low-income and immigrant families, whose children make up the majority of the school district’s student enrollment.
Several school board members are in the process of planning three or four community input sessions that will be held in various locations across the county.
Community activist Paul Scott said the next superintendent must have the “heart and the courage” to close the district’s stubborn achievement gap between students of color and their white counterparts.
“We have had several superintendents over the pass years and none have been successful in closing the achievement gap,” Scott said.
He said black parents must take some responsibility.
“We need an independent, community search committee,” Scott said. “We have to take the responsibility as a community to put forth the questions to those who would lead our children.”
Paula Januzzi, a teacher mentor for DPS, said the school district needs a superintendent who believes in teachers and one who has been a teacher.
“We need someone who knows how manage people, put together a strong responsive staff who will model and set high expectations for customer service, professionalism and the basic Golden Rule of not treating others as you would not want to be treated,” Januzzi said.
L’Homme attended a portion of the hearing, but fell ill and left.
In other business, the school board held a second public input session on the budget in which more than 30 speakers, the majority of them associated with Durham School of the Art (DSA), urged the school district to not cut teaching and assistant principal positions.
About two dozen speakers from DSA expressed concern about the possible loss of its creative writing and guitar program as a result of impending position cuts.
As part of its cost-cutting strategies, DPS’ proposed $430 million spending plan for the 2017-18 school year calls for the elimination of 103 central office and school-based positions, including eight assistant principal positions and 24 teaching positions, in a move to save the school district $11.2 million.
School officials contend no jobs would be lost because the cuts would come through attrition and the elimination of vacancies.
Employees in jobs that are being eliminated would be found new positions within the school district.
DPS has asked County Commissioners for $3.5 million in “new money” to pay for charter school enrollment growth, salary and benefit increases and fixed costs such as increases in utilities.
And $1.5 million in recurring money to launch and sustain Whitted School, a preschool for 144 children that is scheduled to open in August.
Look for updates to this story Friday, May 5.