Once again, Durham Public Schools finds itself at a crossroads — a highly unexpected one.
Bert L’Homme’s surprise announcement Monday night that he plans to step down after this school year means the Board of Education once again will be on a search to find a superintendent that can tackle the myriad of challenges the school system faces. It’s a search they didn’t expect to face for another three years, when L’Homme’s contract was up.
His announcement was as painful as it was surprising. A focused, diligent superintendent with broad experience and a background that included leadership positions in DPS, he had been leading the system forward — albeit more slowly than he wanted or, to be honest, the system needs. Still, his leadership was powerful and it looked as if he were on board for several years, time to make an impact.
Like most bureaucracies, school systems are complex organizations. Change can take not just wisdom and skill, but time and persistence. No matter the quotient of the former, his departure this year shaves the potential full impact of the latter.
The challenges are not unfamiliar to anyone who has watched education here and across the state and country. Public schools face high demands, eroding trust, challenges from charter and private schools and a government climate that can hardly be characterized, in Raleigh or in Washington, as warmly supportive.
Some hurdles are not unique to Durham. Teacher pay badly lags the national average. Many would argue, so does respect for folks who pursue that difficult profession. Compensation and support for principals, whose instructional and building leadership are critical to success, have been stagnant. With enrollments dropping at many schools of education and with veteran teachers aging out or simply escaping a dreary environment, recruiting high-quality new teachers is increasingly hard.
In Durham, the migration to charter schools from the traditional public system has been especially heavy, depriving the system of funding and perhaps more important support from many engaged, active and often persuasive parents who have moved their children to other venues.
L’Homme alluded to those challenges and dramatic changes in “the landscape of public education” in his announcement Monday.
“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.
Those challenges, of course, also weigh on the board’s search for a replacement.
It’s the system’s fourth search in a dozen years. We can’t afford many more such crossroads.