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Durham school board: We recommend a clean start this election 

One of the quirks in the 2014 elections deals with the Durham Board of Education. There is only a May election for this contest, not an additional race in November.

So speak now or forever hold your peace.

In addition to closing the achievement gap and improving poor performing schools, hiring a new superintendent—the board's most recent choice, Eric Becoats, left amid allegations that he used district money for personal use—is obviously a priority. And so is Durham's pitiful track record of disproportionately suspending students with disabilities and minorities.

While there have been gloomier times in the history of Durham Public Schools, financial challenges, teacher turnover and the expansion of publicly funded charters present significant challenges.

Speaking of charters, several school board candidates work at, or serve on boards of, charter or private schools. Do these candidates genuinely have the interests of public school students at heart? Or are the candidates using the Trojan Horse of the election to further attack public education, which was deftly executed by the General Assembly?

Well, the INDY is not recommending that we find out.

Four seats on the seven-member board are up in this ostensibly nonpartisan contest; the remaining positions will be elected in 2016.

DISTRICT 1

Mike Lee has volunteered for Durham Public Schools since 1997 in the area of mentoring, tutoring and Junior Achievement instructor. A product manager of Global Data Services at Credit Suisse, he also received the endorsement of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People and the Durham People's Alliance.

He has strong words for DPS' school suspension policy, noting in his questionnaire, "As it relates to students from very diverse backgrounds, there is never a one size fits all solution. We should put a moratorium on lower-level offense out- of-school suspensions, and children with disabilities, as it has been proven over and over that this has no effect on the behavior of the student."

He supports continuing teacher tenure and applauds the current board's decision to join a lawsuit against a new statute that would eventually remove tenure.

Elected in 2006, incumbent Omega Parker spent more than 39 years working in Durham's public school system. While we applaud her service on the board and in the schools, we feel that there is an opportunity for a fresh start, both on the board and in the superintendent's office.

Thomas Poole, a retired Title 1 instructor, is enthusiastic about Durham public schools, but seems to lack a deep understanding of the challenges they face.

DISTRICT 2

In District 2, which includes Central and parts of South- and East-Central Durham, we wholeheartedly endorse community organizer Sendolo Diaminah.

Diaminah helps lead Peoples' Durham, which successfully pressured the city and county to assist low-income residents who had been evicted—through no fault of their own—from Lincoln Apartments. (The INDY recognized People's Durham with a Citizen Award in 2013 for its advocacy for low-income, minority residents.)

He also trains future community organizers in Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity.

In 2010, People's Durham and the Durham Association of Educators, we were able to preserve 185 teaching jobs in public schools. He says he "played the lead role in studying and educating our members around the budget and budget processes. We worked directly with teachers to empower them to shape the budget that would have a direct effect on their lives and their communities. I would strive to empower all members of the DPS community in the same way."

Diaminah supports reviving the essential teacher mentorship program that had been axed through budget cuts. He also believes that literacy, particularly Pre-K literacy, "has an important connection to discipline issues and the school-to-prison pipeline. A focus on pre-K literacy can change these outcomes for many students, including those with exceptional needs. Diaminah also advocates for better use of School Improvement Teams as they should. "These councils need to have real decision-making power; they should do more than just advise. ... We just need someone with concrete organizing experience to empower local communities to participate, and restore confidence in our school system as an institution that respects and encourages community involvement."

His fellow contenders are DeWarren Langley, who runs the Durham Civilian Police Review Board, a largely inert group that has little power and wields even less. We've long been disappointed in the review board's failure to be proactive, and that has not changed under his leadership.

Donald Hughes has run several times for various Durham offices, including school board in 2010 and city council in 2009 and 2011. His mother, Jackie Wagstaff, is a former (and controversial) school board member and chairwoman of the Durham committee; Hughes received the committee's endorsement.

Terence Scarborough, who works at UNC in the licensure office, served as chairman of the School Improvement Team at City of Medicine Academy. He supports the school system's suspension policy, and is encouraged by the recent policy amendment that gives individual administrators more flexibility in determining when to suspend a student, saying it is a progressive step forward.

"The issue is not the suspension policy, but the inconsistent interpretation, application, and enforcement of the Code of Student Conduct policy. It is this policy that is grossly abused," he wrote in his questionnaire.

Jimmy Doster, a Republican, lost points when he opposed the school board's vote to join a statewide suit against a state law that will end tenure for North Carolina teachers. He suggested talking with legislators first. Because no one has ever done that before.

DISTRICT 3

Matt Sears is our emphatic choice for District 3, which includes most of southwest Durham County.

As a math teacher at Hillside High School and Hillside New Tech, Sears has deep experience in public schools. A Fulbright winner, Sears was also selected DPS' Teacher of the Year, and was awarded the Excellence in Teaching Alumni Award from the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill. He now is director for school services at N.C. New Schools, a nonprofit that serves the state's public high schools.

Over the past three years, Sears has led innovations at the City of Medicine Academy, Southern High School, Neal Middle School and Lucas Middle School in Durham. He also leads teams at 20 public schools to help shore up communications among teachers and principals, worked on professional development for teachers and helped analyze data so schools can make targeted improvements.

The other candidates all are affiliated with charters or religious schools. Lisa Stella Gordon is the vice chairwoman of the Maureen Joy Charter board; Steve Gatlin teaches at Voyager Academy and Deborah Lorraine Bryson, who received the Durham Committee's endorsement, runs a Christian Montessori school.

In District 4, Natalie Beyer is running unopposed.

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