Durham will elect a new mayor and three City Council members this fall. Several candidates talk about representing all of Durham, and that includes its youngest residents. Educators see Durham’s kids every day.
One of the council seats is being vacated by a retired Durham Public Schools teacher, Eddie Davis. One of the candidates for his seat is a teacher, LeVon Barnes. One of the mayoral candidates is a former school board member, Steve Schewel. Another council candidate works in the school system, Brian Callaway.
The city does not control school funding – that’s the job of the school board and Durham County Board of Commissioners. But the city’s image depends in part on its schools, and educators are on the front line.
DPS has about 33,000 students in traditional public schools this year, with another 6,700 in charter schools. According to Private School Review, about 6,000 students are in Durham private schools. Two out of three students in traditional DPS schools last school year received free and reduced-price meals, according to the school system.
Michelle Burton has lived in Durham more than 20 years. She is the library coordinator at Spring Valley Elementary School, a school within the Brightleaf neighborhood in eastern Durham County, an area off U.S. 70 annexed by the city.
In the library, an overdue book leads to a story from children about why they don’t have it. Sometimes they’ve left the book where they used to live.
Some kids face evictions regularly, Burton said. Last school year, she knew of students who moved to Durham and within Durham because of housing costs.
“We had two brothers move from Pittsburgh to Durham because of housing, and staying with relatives. They were only at the school for a month and had to move again,” Burton said. Another student was out of school for two weeks because the landlord sold the house they were living in, she said. Another student moved to Durham from suburban Maryland because Durham is more affordable.
Moving affects children, Burton said, because they have to make new friends and get used to new teachers.
“I know it takes a toll,” she said.
I’ve been in Durham for over 20 years. I like seeing Durham be revitalized, but it’s hurting the people who can least afford it.
Michelle Burton, Durham educator and voter
“I’ve been in Durham for over 20 years. I like seeing Durham be revitalized, but it’s hurting the people who can least afford it,” said Burton, who also volunteers at the Durham Literacy Center. She wants detailed, specific plans to address it.
“We need to make Durham a place for everybody. Elected officials need to understand core problems are [evident] with our kids. Our kids are city residents. When parents don’t have enough money for rent and food, it trickles down to the schools to provide,” she said.
Burton wants council members to know that when they approve a rezoning or permit for a new development, it affects students.
“I think city council and the mayor did a really good job with the image of Durham. It’s those unintended consequences of doing it. All that energy downtown, and they forgot about all the other people and how it will affect them,” Burton said.
Dabney Hopkins works with exceptional children at R.N. Harris Magnet Elementary School and lives in Walltown. She moved to Durham in 1968.
“I want two things from the city. Absolute attention to affordable housing. We’re putting up all these apartment buildings and people can’t afford to live there. Students are hidden homeless, staying with relatives. There is tension and stress on kids at a young age,” Hopkins said. She also wants the city to pay closer attention to Durham Parks and Recreation programs by offering more transportation and programs at more times.
Hopkins likes the city bus system, but wants it to be better, with more frequent stops, especially farther out from downtown.
“Downtown is now vibrant and bustling. It certainly didn’t used to be,” she said. “Housing is more expensive, but that’s the market. They’re paying attention now.”
Alexa Goff is a kindergarten and first grade teacher at Club Boulevard Magnet Elementary School.
“Affordable housing I see as an issue for my students year after year. Two years ago I had three students who were homeless at the same time. One student was constantly shuttled from place to place ... He was in this impossible situation because he didn’t have a home. It absolutely had an impact on his school year. Focusing on learning to read was really difficult for him,” Goff said.
Goff knows about another side of affordable housing, too, for herself.
“I’m single with two kids and live in a 750-square-foot house. It’s tight and it’s all I can do to afford that house,” she said. “The role of elected officials is that when a situation causes distress in their community, to look for policy decisions. Can people afford rent when neighborhoods are gentrified?”
Goff wants council candidates to view communities like teachers view classrooms. That means making sure every student can thrive, not just managing the class.
Anca Stefan teaches 11th and 12th grade English at The School for Creative Studies.
“Especially with the city developing at a really accelerated rate, officials should have accountability for developers, for the people of the city to live with dignity in communities where they grow up,” Stefan said.
“We need a broad range [of jobs] that earn a real living, not just money. So parents and kids live a life that is fulfilling,” she said. Stefan also thinks policing is a giant issue in Durham.
“It’s just so critical that Durham is a space people feel safe to come to school and are not afraid because of their legal [immigration] status,” she said.
Lisa McCool-Grime teaches 11th and 12th grade math at the Southern School of Energy and Sustainability, a high school.
As teachers, we actually need policy makers really dedicated to the idea of homes for all.
Lisa McCool-Grime, Durham teacher and voter
“As teachers, we actually need policy makers really dedicated to the idea of homes for all,” she said. “Homeless students’ needs are different than teachers on a limited budget. It is going to require policy makers to limit development and put policies on development.”
McCool-Grime wants an economy that works for everyone. She said if a company is coming in to Durham, there needs to be the same percentage of housing affordable to the percentage of employees who will work there. Not just housing, but safe housing, she said.
To the candidates
Durham candidates for mayor and council are invited to respond to what the educators said in this story and issues they raised. Send up to 300 words to firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll publish all candidate responses.