Durham school board prepared to 'fight,' won't let state 'take away our schools'

Durham Public Schools' leaders said Thursday they are prepared to "fight" if the state tries to take control of any of their schools and hand them over to charter school operators.

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Kelly Hinchcliffe
DURHAM, N.C. — Durham Public Schools' leaders said Thursday they are prepared to "fight" if the state tries to take control of any of their schools and hand them over to charter school operators. But state leaders say they don't want a fight, they want to partner with the schools and communities.

Two of Durham's schools – Glenn Elementary and Lakewood Elementary – are on the state's shortlist of low-performing schools being considered for North Carolina's new Innovative School District. They are being considered because their performance scores are among the lowest 5 percent in the state.

The schools being considered are:

  • Durham Public Schools – Glenn Elementary
  • Durham Public Schools – Lakewood Elementary
  • Nash-Rocky Mount Schools – Williford Elementary
  • Northampton County Schools – Willis Hare Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – R B Dean Elementary
  • Robeson County Schools – Southside Ashpole Elementary

The ISD will take five struggling schools from across the state and hand them over to charter school operators, who will manage and run them in an effort to improve their academic performance. The State Board of Education will choose two schools this year, likely in November or December, and three next year.

Durham school leaders have repeatedly asked not to be included in the program. But just because a district asks not to participate doesn't mean it will be removed from consideration. If a school is chosen and declines to participate, by law it must close its doors and shut down.

At their meeting Thursday night, Durham Board of Education members did not say whether they would shut down a school if it is chosen, but they promised to fight back.

"We’re going to fight it with every option that we have," said board Chairman Mike Lee. "If those in Raleigh are not familiar with Durham, get ready, because Durham is different. Durham is different from what you guys might be experiencing in other areas, and we’re going to prove that."

Board member Natalie Beyer called the ISD a "hair-brained idea" that is "bad for children" and said the board "will do everything we can to fight for our students."

For board member Matt Sears, the discussion was personal. One of his children attends Lakewood Elementary, and his two younger children will eventually attend the school. Sears said he was "insulted" by a recent comment State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey made to NC Policy Watch, in which he said the districts under consideration have had "plenty of time to deal with these failing schools."

"That makes me angry," Sears said. "I’m not going to let you take away our schools."

Sears said the state should "come get to know us" and take into consideration the efforts that are already underway to improve the schools.

"Don’t interrupt our progress," he said.

When reached for comment, Cobey stood by his comments and said in an emailed statement: "We are attempting to implement a program passed by the General Assembly aimed at improving the education of children in schools that have a history of low performance."

In an interview Friday, ISD Superintendent Eric Hall said he met with Durham school officials this past week and had some "great dialogue."

"I’ve really enjoyed engaging with the two schools in Durham this past week, enjoyed really the thoughtful conversations that I think took place with school leaders, the district leaders and with the local board chair," Hall said. "I think we’ve engaged in some good dialogue up to this point in trying to really understand the needs of the schools (and) some of the things that may have been contributing to some of the challenges."

"For me, this is not about a fight," Hall added. "This is about really an opportunity to inform and educate our families and our communities across the state about the needs of our schools."

Schools chosen for the ISD will be turned over to charter school operators, which means their local school boards will no longer have a say in the staffing, instruction or other educational matters at those schools. However, the school boards will still be responsible for maintaining the buildings, making sure they have the appropriate furniture and equipment and continuing to provide transportation for the students.

In a recent letter to the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, Durham Public Schools' leaders said they are already working "to design and pursue innovative strategies" to improve their low-performing schools and asked that they not be included in the ISD.

Durham Superintendent Bert L’Homme said his students "will be served best by school reforms that come with local accountability."

But Hall says the task he has "to stick to and stay focused on is, in the end, what do we need to do to ensure the success of the students and the schools. For me that’s going to be front and center," he said. "In a perfect world, it would be great of course if everybody was willing to participate."

Durham Public Schools' reaction to being considered for the ISD is not surprising. Lt. Gov. Dan Forest predicted the pushback last year, saying he expected "some turf wars" between the ISD and local school systems but said the "calculated risk" was necessary to help low-performing schools.

Hall, who became ISD superintendent in May, is hoping to avoid those turf wars and said he wants to work in partnership with local communities to help choose charter operators to take control of the schools.

"We will have a process to ensure that community voice and community representation is involved in that matching," he said. "My goal is not for us to just pick somebody from sitting here at the office based on an application. Our task is how do we look at what we know the school needs and what the values of that school community really are and match an operator that’s going to match those values."


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