Superintendent’s announcement to retire in August stuns community

Superintendent Bert L'Homme in a recent Durham Public Schools file photo.
Superintendent Bert L'Homme in a recent Durham Public Schools file photo.

In a stunning announcement late Monday, Durham Public Schools Superintendent Bert L’Homme, citing dramatic changes in the “landscape of public education,” announced that he will retire in August with three years left on his contract.

L’Homme was hired to lead DPS in June 2014.

The Durham Board of Education renewed his contract last summer to run through 2020.

“In January, I realized that I likely will not have the physical or mental energy to respond to those challenges, while at the same time dramatically accelerating our academic growth, for the duration of my contract,” L’Homme said in a statement.

L’Homme announced his decision to retire during a Durham Board of Education closed session.

School board Chairman Mike Lee said L’Homme caught the board by surprise, leaving its members speechless.

“It caught the board off guard,” Lee said. “There was dead silence.”

Lee said L’Homme has been a tireless worker for the district.

“I do believe he has given us more than 100 percent,” Lee said. “I think he felt it’s time to spend more time with his family. The board supports him and we are grateful for his service. We’re happy for him and hopes he finds his place of peace.”

While L’Homme did not spell out the changes in public education that influenced his decision to step down, his tenure at DPS has been hit hard by a proliferation of charter schools that have won away thousands of potential students.

Earlier this year, DPS projected enrollment in Durham’s 13 charter schools to grow by 700 students next school year while DPS’ enrollment was expected to fall by 500 students.

Much of the enrollment growth for charters projected for next school year was fueled by Discovery Charter School, which would become the county’s 14th charter, and the 350 students it had expected to enroll in September.

But Discovery Charter officials last week announced plans to delay the opening of the Science, Technology Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.)-themed school while the county fights neighbors’ probable lawsuit over the Board of Adjustment approval of the school’s site plan.

Meanwhile, DPS has postponed the opening of its own S.T.E.A.M.-themed school, Eagle Academy, planned for the campus of N.C. Central University, due to budgetary constraints.

It was to be one of L’Homme’s crowning achievements as superintendent.

Changes on the state level include a mandate to reduce K-3 class sizes that could potentially cost DPS an additional $6 million if the Republican-led General Assembly does not change the law.

L’Homme’s decision to retire comes as the district embarks on a major redistricting, prepares to open the Whitted School, a preschool with eight classrooms for 144 students, and struggles through a third consecutive tight budget year that could force DPS to lay off some workers.

“I have asked the Durham Public Schools Board of Education to give me enough time for our board and staff to adopt a 2017-18 school budget without disruption, open our year-round and traditional schools, and establish a transition plan for an interim superintendent and search plan for DPS’ next leader,” L’Homme said.

County Commissioner Heidi Carter, who was chairwoman of the school board that hired L’Homme, noted DPS’ tough budget last year that included dozens of central office layoffs and which could lead to more this year.

“Last year, he [L’Homme] led the district through an unprecedentedly tough budget season with a strong, transparent and compassionate process, and he and the board are working through difficult budget challenges again this year,” Carter said.

She said she was disappointed to hear that L’Homme is retiring.

“Superintendents don’t often stay in one place long enough to lay a solid foundation of stability that student success depends on and I was hoping that Durham could take advantage of the continuity of Bert’s [L’Homme’s] strong, excellent leadership a while longer,” Carter said.

School board Member Matt Sears said he is grateful for L’Homme’s service to DPS.

“I think he has represented us well in a difficult national political transition and he has demonstrated his commitment to all of the families in this district,” Sears said. “I’m proud of the work that has been done during his tenure.”

L’Homme succeeded Eric Becoats Jr., who resigned after the board voted not to extend his contract when it expired in 2013.

Becoats had been disciplined for credit card spending and using a school activity bus for personal use.

School board Member Minnie Forte-Brown said L’Homme “calmed the waters” in the aftermath of Becoats’ tenure when some residents had expressed a loss of confidence in DPS and its leadership.

“People were happy to know he was coming back,” Forte-Brown said of L’Homme who previously served as an assistant superintendent for academic services with DPS.

School board member Steve Unruhe said he will be sad to see L’Homme leave.

“I really like working with Dr. [Bert] L’Homme,” Unruhe said. “He’s been fabulous for the school system, but I can understand the physical toll of it all.”

Lee said he would like to have a new superintendent either identified or in place before L’Homme departs.

“We like to have someone on board so we can have a smooth transition,” Lee said. “What that process [of selecting a new superintendent] will look like, I can’t identify at the moment.”

Last week, L’Homme made a report to the school board on the progress he has made toward four goals the board adopted for him during a retreat last September.

The goals were to improve teacher retention, academic outcomes for boys and young men of color, create a plan to open three additional pre-kindergarten sites and to produce a plan to better tell the school district’s success stories.

L’Homme reported a modest improvement in teacher retention, with the turnover rate falling from 20.43 percent to 19.19 percent and very incremental gains on state tests for the districts African American and Hipsanic students.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645