Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Lisa Gordon Stella
Date of Birth: 11/6/1968
Campaign Web Site: www.LisaForSchoolBoard.com
Occupation & Employer: Attorney/Mediator/Truancy Court Program Director
Work phone: 919-274-5719
Twitter handle, if applicable: @LisaGStella
1. If elected, what are your top priorities?1. Facilitate system-wide culture shift at DPS that will:
a. Change what is driving the perception of our school system by truly improving our education system at every level. DPS should be perceived as the number one choice for an excellent education.
b. Recognize that our education system’s purpose is to educate students. Reliable support from great teachers and principals are at the heart of this endeavor. The school system must focus on supporting them and value their expertise when deciding how to best educate our students. The focus must be on students and teachers rather than on Central Office.
c. Support our teachers as professionals with higher pay, mentoring, meaningful evaluations, and relevant, customized professional development.
d. Engage in clear, focused, and authentic communication with parents, students and the community, so as to create confidence and trust in our school system.
e. Create a unified school district through collaboration between our traditional public schools and charter schools. Working collaboratively we can leverage resources and expertise to benefit all Durham’s students.2. Provide strong Support Services that will:
a. Promote dynamic and committed leadership that understands the challenges facing our most at-risk students and is dedicated to serving students effectively and swiftly. Interventions to help students should occur when a need is identified and should not be delayed.
b. Dedicate strong social workers to every school. Social workers should no longer split their time between two schools; they must be dedicated to a single school to best serve students and families.
c. Strategically address through evidenced based programming suspension, student behavior and the school to prison pipeline. Embrace restorative justice models to address behavioral issues such as peer mediation, preventative mediation, re-entry mediation and peaceful schools. Ensure that teachers and school personnel receive proper training to address student behavior.3. Promote fiscal responsibility, transparency and clear accountability throughout DPS that includes:
a. The School Board and top administrators to be committed to understanding how public education money is spent and ensuring money is spent effectively and responsibly. DPS budget should be analyzed and a thorough cost analysis conducted for every line item in the budget.
b. Community budget advisory committee must have complete access to clear budget information for the entire budget. The entire DPS budget must be available online, not just selected sections.
c. There must be regular evaluation of all existing programing to best identify what works and what does not. We should no longer add new programming without eliminating those programs that are not serving their purpose.
d. Establish clear standards of performance and meaningful reviews of Central Office and administrative staff. We should stop promoting and shifting individuals who do not perform, and instead, support improved performance or separate poorly performing staff.
2. What is there in your public record or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be an effective leader? Please be specific about your public and community service background.
My commitment to public and community service and demonstrated leadership ability has been a lifelong endeavor—as a foster sister, attorney, education leader, business owner, and my ongoing working in various leadership positions on non-profit boards. When I was eleven, my parents opened our home to foster children. From the age of eleven until eighteen, I shared my room with nearly thirty different foster children, mostly teenage girls facing traumatic family situations. Two of these children eventually became my adopted siblings, making me the oldest of six. As the oldest, I took a leadership role and responsibility for helping to care for my foster and natural siblings, helping with homework, bedtime, and later driving them to and from school. I assisted in integrating each foster child into our home and school, providing peer support, active listening, and role modeling. Living with children from myriad backgrounds was an amazing experience that left an indelible impression on me. I saw first hand the incredible challenges many children face and how they can be tremendous obstacles to success. Many of my foster siblings were returned to a home life where their chances of escaping crime and poverty were grim. My interest in advocating and helping children is, in large part, due to this experience.
While practicing law I devoted hundreds of hours to providing pro bono service to those who were unable to afford legal counsel. While my pro bono work included Guardian Ad Litem Appeals and serving as the firm’s liaison to Legal Aid Advocates for Children, I primarily specialized in International Child Abduction cases. I worked closely with the National Center of Missing and Exploited Children to reunite parents with their children who had been kidnapped to the United States. I represented parents from Europe, Central and South America, whose children had been kidnapped to the United States, by a parent. While I rarely had the opportunity to meet in person with my clients, I was heartened by the knowledge that I could help them navigate the Unites States legal system and represent them so their child could be returned. In my first case, I represented a mother in Mexico whose child was not returned to her after a visit with the father in Fayetteville, North Carolina. The child suffered from a serious medical condition and after failing to return the child, the father was deployed oversees, leaving the child with a friend. I negotiated the return of the child to her mother. The mother could not afford to come to North Carolina to take her child home, so I was charged with ensuring the child’s safe return to Mexico. I can describe the joy (and relief I felt) when my client called me that evening to thank me, between tears, for her child’s safe return. For two consecutive years, 2003 and 2004, The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children recognized me with their Award of Merit for my work on behalf of families and children. In 2004, my law firm also recognized me with the Claude Scarborough Award for Outstanding Pro Bono Work for the Poor. And, in 2005, the North Carolina Bar Association awarded me the Younger Lawyer Pro Bono Service Award in recognition of my outstanding pro bono service to children and families.
My devotion to children in need continues today. I serve as the Program Director for Truancy Court for the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center, which has a contract to provide truancy court to all Durham Public Schools. This program uses a restorative justice model where we bring the student’s “education community” together to address the problems facing the student and put together a plan to correct it, which can include identifying services inside and outside the school to assist the student in attendance, academics and behavior. According to DPS, truancy court is praised as one of two programs currently offered to help prevent student suspension. It is also often the only school program to prevent students from dropping out of school. Funding for the program from Durham Public Schools is currently $72,000 per year so we rely heavily on volunteers who serve as volunteer judges acting as mediators to facilitate the truancy court sessions. In my capacity as the Program Director, my duties and responsibilities include:1. Recruit and Train 25-35 professionals to serve as truancy court judges in Durham Public Schools, including law professors, retired law enforcement officers, attorneys, mediators, retired educators, and law students.
My ongoing public and community service also includes non-profit board service. Since 2010, I have served as the President of the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center. In that capacity I have committed hundreds of hours as a volunteer mediator helping people in and out of the court system to resolve disputes peacefully. I have also worked to train peer mediators at Githen Middle School, co-trained community mediators, and provided training to non-profit and government employees on using mediation skills when dealing with clients. I have met with DPS Executive Team members to discuss implementation of additional restorative justice programs in Durham Public Schools to reduce suspensions and behavioral problems. And, I served as a facilitator at three of the four Community Conversations DPS held regarding the disproportionate suspension of minority students and students with disabilities. Additionally, in my role as Board President, my duties and responsibilities further include:1. Examine, evaluate and approve budgets.
Furthermore, currently I am the Vice President of the Maureen Joy Charter School in Durham where I have served on the board for over eight years. My duties and responsibilities include:1. Served as Vice President since 2012.
For me, service on the Durham Public School Board will continue my lifelong commitment to public service and helping children.
3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
I consider myself someone who is a progressive, open-minded, principled, and an independent free thinker. My decision-making and opinions are based on seeking out reliable information, careful investigation, first-hand experience, and critical thinking, not dogma or blind adherence to ideology. While I have strong opinions, I believe it is critical to listen, learn and collaborate, even in areas where I believe that I am knowledgeable. My philosophy and approach is demonstrated in my work as a mediator, as the President of a non-profit, as the Director of the Truancy Court Program, and as the Vice-President of the Maureen Joy Charter School.
I began my professional career as a litigator, but by training and practicing mediation, I realized mediation is a more effective and productive method of reaching solutions. While I enjoy advocating for others, I get tremendous satisfaction out of listening to people and helping them work out their differences through communication, cooperation and understanding. I use these skills in my role as Vice President of the Maureen Joy Charter School and President of the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center. As a board member, it is my duty to listen carefully and keep an open mind in order to make decisions based on solid information that furthers the goals of those we serve—our children and community.
My philosophy also drives how I conduct myself every day when I work with children and families in schools across Durham as the Truancy Court Program Director. To connect with and serve children and families it is critical that we truly listen to them and ensure that we are strategically addressing problems. This is why I am advocating for stronger and strategic Support Services. We need dynamic and committed leadership that understands the challenges facing our most at-risk students and are determined to serve students diligently, appropriately and swiftly. Our students and families need dedicated social workers in nearly every school. And, we must embrace restorative justice models to address behavioral issues, programs such as peer mediation, preventative mediation, re-entry mediation and peaceful schools.
Restorative justice is a community-based approached to dealing with problems, whether the problem is crime or truancy. Cities around the country, from California to Illinois to Ohio are using restorative justice programs to address problems with youth. Unlike retributive and punitive models which employ an adversarial system that focuses on fixing blame, past behavior, and punishment, restorative justice focuses on the individual and social dimensions of a problem. Restorative justice programs engage the community, using problem solving and emphasizing dialogue and negotiation. Restorative justice programs such as truancy court make personal responsibility and future behavior central to the process. That is why restorative justice programming is part of my platform because it reflects my philosophy and is best suited to meeting the needs of our students.
Perhaps, the best illustration of my philosophy is my experience serving on the Board of Maureen Joy Charter School. When I was first approached about joining their Board, nearly a decade ago, I knew little about charters, and I was wary. As a strong supporter of public education (someone who attended only public school, including college and law school), what I knew about charters gave me pause. I decided to join the Maureen Joy Board not only to provide a public service, but also to give myself an opportunity to learn and grow. Through the knowledge I have gained in my service to Maureen Joy, I have come to realize that great education can happen for all children and that continuing to engage in an ideological discussion regarding the propriety of charter schools in North Carolina will not improve public education in Durham. The extremes on both sides of the charter school issue must cease their posturing and propaganda and put our children first. We must shift our focus to how best to serve the children, through collaboration and thoughtful strategic charter growth which I have written about in my views on charter growth in opinions published in the News & Observer on September 17, 2013 and January 22, 2014 and in the Herald Sun on January 12, 2014. We need to educate ourselves and look at what other districts and states are doing for education, such as district and charter collaboration, which is part of my platform. Places like Denver, Colorado where district/charter collaboration is producing impressive student success and reversing “white flight,” with a student population that is over 75% minority and over 75% economically disadvantaged. By being open-minded, independent and receptive to new information and facts, I can best serve our community and our students.
4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
If elected, I would advocate for Durham Public Schools to study the feasibility and cost of moving the majority of our elementary and middle schools to a year round school calendar, providing a longer school day for schools with high concentrations of struggling students, and changing schools’ start times. If we truly want all students to succeed, it is imperative that we take whatever steps are necessary, including examining our school calendar, to meet the needs of our student population, even if it might not be popular. A hallmark of strong leadership is being willing to do what is right and make difficult but thoughtful decisions, something that I have done in my current leadership positions, and am prepared to do if elected to the school board.
Working with at-risk youth throughout Durham Public Schools in my role as the Director of the Truancy Court Program, I have come to believe that we need to take a hard look at our school calendar to see if it is meeting the needs of our students. While not conclusively proven, year-round schools can reduce the summer learning loss, particularly for low-income students. Studies have shown that students in yearround schools do as well or slightly better in terms of academic achievement than students in traditional schools. In addition, year-round schools are most beneficial for students from low-income families. And, students, parents and teachers who participate in year-round schools tend to have more positive attitudes about the experience. Over seventy-percent of Durham’s student population is from low-income households. While Durham has some year-round school options, given the current student demographic in Durham, we must consider expanding year-round programming to stem the tide of learning loss and to provide our students and teachers with periodic learning breaks that can rejuvenate them.
In addition, the current school day is often difficult for our students and their parents. The reality is that many parents are often juggling more than one job. The school day often causes difficulties in arranging for childcare because is does not follow their work schedule. Many of our students also need extra academic support that a longer school day can provide. A longer school day offers an opportunity for tutoring, protected homework time, with assistance if needed, or engagement in enrichment activities that might not otherwise be available to many of our students.
We must also examine school start times. Currently, the elementary students start school at 9am whereas older students start at 7:20. One problem that occurs fairly often is that parents with jobs that require them to leave early have difficulty getting their elementary student off to school without the help of an older sibling. This causes the older sibling to be late or miss school entirely. In addition, research demonstrates that biologically, older students function better with a later start time. While a change to the start time could raise other concerns, we should at least consider such changes, balance these concerns and see what is best for our children and families.
5. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your election to office help further that goal?
Building a just community is part of my vision as well and I work every day to further that goal. In my role as Truancy Court Program Director, I use restorative justice programming to help at-risk youth succeed in school and connect with their school community. And, as Vice President of Maureen Joy Charter School, I am committed to closing the achievement gap so that every child can succeed regardless of socioeconomic status.
My work as the Director of the Truancy Court uses a restorative justice model where we bring the student’s “education community” together to address the problems facing the student. At truancy court, the social worker, counselors, administrator, parent, student and judge sit together to identify the underlying cause of truancy and develop a plan to correct it. During that meeting the student’s attendance, academics, and behavior are discussed. We work together to identify the student’s and sometimes family’s needs and ensure that the student and parent are connected to support services. Those services can be services available at the school, such as intervention programs, assessments, or tutoring, or in the community, such as mental health and mentoring. The truancy court sessions not only serve to reduce truancy but also connect and engage students and parents with their school community. So often, parents are unaware of the variety of resources available to them and their child and that the school wants to do all it can to help their child succeed. Using restorative justice programming, like truancy court, peer mediation, and peaceful schools, requires that problems be solved through community engagement rather than through punishment and isolation. I believe creating a just community requires that we embrace such programs to address student behavior, reduce truancy and the use of suspensions.
Reducing the achievement gap is also a critical component to building a just community. Through my board experience at Maureen Joy, I have seen first hand how a united and strong community of educators can help children succeed academically and close the achievement gap. Maureen Joy’s population is all minority, with 92% of students receiving free or reduced meals. Over one third of Maureen Joy’s students receive special education services such as ESL and EC. Like traditional public schools, Maureen Joy provides bus transportation and free/reduced breakfast and lunch. But most importantly, Maureen Joy students achieve academically, consistently outperforming their peers across the State and in Durham. Maureen Joy has been classified as “high-growth” for four years in a row and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction selected Maureen Joy as one of only six charter schools in the state that showed the ability to close the achievement gap for students of minorities and low-income backgrounds. I believe we can close the achievement gap through hard work and collaboration. A just and equitable public school system requires that we prioritize and focus resources strategically to address the ongoing disparities end of grade achievement and graduation rates demonstrates.
Given my demonstrated commitment in words and action to a just community, my election to the school board would absolutely further the INDY’s mission.
6. Minority children and children with disabilities are suspended from DPS at higher rates than their white counterparts. To what do you attribute this disparity? How should this disparity be resolved?
That minority children and children with disabilities are suspended at higher rates than their white counterparts is attributable to many things: lack of cultural competence, lack of training, misguided school/district policies with a “zero tolerance” approach, a punitive school discipline culture and the failure to implement comprehensive, strategic and effective programs for addressing behavior. To resolve this disparity, DPS must change its policies and practices and create a positive rather than punitive school discipline culture.
In December, I served as a facilitator at three of the four community conversations DPS held on the discipline and suspension issue. This gave me the opportunity to listen directly to parents and concerned citizens. What I learned is that parents are frustrated with “zero tolerance” policies and often find schools do not communicate with them regarding behavior issues when they first arise. Instead, communication occurs after behavior has escalated to the point that their child is being suspended. Many parents were also unaware of DPS’s signature program to address behavior, PBIS Program (Positive Behavior Intervention System), and most doubted that it was being implemented in their child’s school given what they had observed. I also attended a screening of the School to Prison Pipeline, a documentary on North Carolina Schools, which highlights the criminalizing of student behavior and the devastating impact it has on our children and community. It is clear that many of our students and families feel alienated from our education system because of the current discipline policies. All too often, typical student behavior is criminalized causing students to be pushed out of our education system and into the criminal justice system unfairly targeting minority students or students with disabilities. This is hurting our students and our community.
As the Director of the Truancy Court Program, I have seen how many of our youth are facing serious personal and family challenges daily, including homelessness, domestic violence, gang violence, neglect, disabilities, mental illness, and hunger. When these students come to school these challenges impair their ability to learn and are associated with disruptive behaviors, contributing to increased suspension rates or court involvement. My specific proposals on how DPS must rethink and address student discipline and stop the pipeline to prison, includes the following:1. Promote strong Support Services. This begins with excellent, motivated leadership and a clear understanding of the problems with a clear strategy for addressing the issues.
7. The Durham Board of Education recently joined a lawsuit with dozens of other public school districts challenge the law that ends teacher tenure. Tell the voters about your views on this law and the board’s legal challenge to it.
I believe that the legislation, which actually includes other provisions besides the elimination of career status, has and will continue to have a devastating impact on our education system and our State and I support the Durham Public School Board’s decision to join the lawsuit. The elimination of “tenure” is actually the elimination of teacher career status, which includes a provision that allows for the top 25% of teachers in each district to be offered a one-time $500 bonus in exchange for relinquishing their career status. The teacher tenure law that the legislature attacked was passed in 1971, and consists of a comprehensive set of legal employment protections for public school teachers and is not the tenure most associate with college professors. Instead, it requires teachers to teach for four years before being eligible for career status. Once they have obtained career status, teachers could still be terminated for one of 15 specific grounds, including “inadequate performance.” Legislation was passed in 2011 that streamlined the timeframes involved with career status teacher dismissal proceedings and established a specific, statutory definition of “inadequate performance” linked to the state teacher evaluation system. The lawsuit challenging the elimination of career status will likely turn on whether the legislature intended to create contractual rights when it initially established career status. Based on my reading of case law analysis on this issue, it is unclear whether the North Carolina Supreme Court will find the legislation eliminating teachers’ career status unconstitutional.
Regardless of what the Court determines, I believe that what the legislature has done to education over the past two years is counter-productive to our education system and I support the Durham School Board decision to challenge it. The elimination of career status, the legislators’ disdain and distrust of teachers and our education system, and the abysmal pay our teachers endure (North Carolina now ranking 46th in teacher pay), is undermining our education system and demoralizing to our teachers. Teachers are leaving the profession or moving to where they can find a living wage and our education system will have a difficult time recruiting excellent educators. Instead of bolstering our teachers through its legislation, what the legislators have done has had the opposite impact: Why would an excellent teacher want to come to a state that treats them to such indignities? To the extent the legislature believed bad teachers must be edged out of teaching, it should have urged school districts to utilize the dismissal proceedings under the career status law instead of dismantling it. Ultimately, those most injured are our students, our schools, and our communities.
8. The General Assembly passed sweeping legislation on education budgets, teacher pay, vouchers and charter schools in the last session. Assess the impact of that legislation, either as a whole or individual laws. Which laws do you agree/disagree with? Why?
Taken together, I believe the legislation aimed at North Carolina’s education system have and will continue to have a tremendously negative impact on our State, our economy and our quality of life.
The education budget contains numerous provisions that compromises North Carolina’s education systems. The spending amount set forth in the education budget actually reduces the amount we spend on education. The 2014 fiscal year budget spends $500 million less than the 2008 inflation-adjusted budget. Indeed, the Legislature did not actually provide enough funding to maintain the current level of education services for our students. In addition, teacher assistants are effectively eliminated from the state budget (the local school districts can fill in the gap to have teacher assistants) and student class size is increased. This means that teachers will have to teach more students while having less support from teacher assistants. Far from bolstering our education system, the budget serves to make it more difficult for teachers to effectively teach and for our students to learn.
Add to this, the fact that teacher pay now ranks 46th in the nation. This is unacceptable. Teachers are professionals and are integral to helping shape our future generations. They must be paid and treated as such. While teacher pay is one way we value our teachers, we must also support them in other meaningful ways and have the funds to do so. We must provide teachers with mentors, regular meaningful evaluations and relevant individualized professional development so that they can succeed and improve. An evaluator with a teaching background should regularly observe teachers. The evaluator should meet with the teacher and provide feedback from the observation. In addition, evaluators should provide teachers with feedback on lesson plans, and help develop tailored professional development for the teacher. Teacher evaluations should also include input from parents, students, other teachers, administrators, and staff. The evaluation’s purpose should be to provide the teacher with clear information and direction for growth. At Maureen Joy Charter School where I serve as Vice-President of the Board, we have created teacher-leader positions called Academic Deans. Leaders in this position teach a class, and then spend the rest of their day observing other teachers, reading and giving feedback on lesson plans, developing internal benchmarks, and creating tailored professional development. Because of this new role, all teachers are now observed weekly and get actionable feedback that promotes their development. We need to fund such programs to support teachers throughout DPS.
As for charter school growth, I believe that unlimited unchecked proliferation of charters will not serve to help our education system but will undermine it. I voiced my views on charter growth in opinions published in the News & Observer on September 17, 2013 and January 22, 2014 and in the Herald Sun on January 12, 2014. Charter schools present an opportunity to prove what’s possible in public education: to achieve extraordinary success with students whose needs are too often not met in traditional public schools. But to realize that opportunity, we must set a high bar for entry to the sector, prioritize charter schools dedicated to serving high-need students, ensure equal access to charter schools and commit to closing those schools that don’t measure up. North Carolina does not simply need more charter schools; it needs excellent charter schools. The only applicants to receive charter approvals should be those that can demonstrate strong promise for breakthrough success. We need charters with clear missions keenly focused on leveraging the talent and experience necessary to create great schools. Our state also needs schools that are dedicated to serving students who too often struggle in traditional schools, especially students from low-income backgrounds and those with disabilities or limited English proficiency. But to serve these students, we have to prioritize applicants with this mission, ensure truly equal access by requiring (and funding) food and transportation services in public charter schools, providing charters with access to facilities funding and enable weighted lotteries to let schools responsibly enroll students they are mission-driven to serve. Finally, state leaders must commit to closing public charter schools that do not meet standards for student achievement and growth. The fundamental bargain of charter schools is increased flexibility in exchange for increased accountability. While it is never easy to shut down a school, those that fail to meet student needs year after year harm students’ future chances for success and undermine the charter movement as a whole. We should not forget, charters were intended to be one part of a diverse public school system, not its replacement.
I am against vouchers and believe they have no place in our public education system. Based on my reading of the law and review of legal analysis of the voucher system created by our legislators in North Carolina, I also believe vouchers are unconstitutional. Beyond that, vouchers are a poor policy choice that will lead to a less robust education system. The school voucher program will siphon $10 million from the public school budget and set it aside for vouchers further reducing the amount of money going to our public education system. Vouchers will also encourage the creation of private schools that have virtually no oversight and whose motivations may be less about educating students and more about profits. Lawmakers frustrated with aspects of our public education system should work with the system finding ways to improve it rather than abandoning the system through vouchers. Far from creating accountability and improving the education of our students, vouchers will shift monies away from our existing education system, further exacerbating budget challenges.
9. Several candidates in this year’s school board election have strong ties to charter schools. For candidates with those ties: Why are you seeking election to a public school board? What are the pros and cons of vouchers? How would you respond to perceptions that charter school employees could have an agenda in pursuing election to the public school board? And if you were to share the board with members who are unaffiliated with charters, how would you address your policy differences?
For those candidates unaffiliated with charter schools: Should the state provide vouchers to parents who choose private (K-12) schools for their children? If so, for what amount? What are the pros and cons of vouchers? What is the impact of the voucher program on public schools? And if you were to share the board with members who are affiliated with charters, how would you address your policy differences?
I am running for Durham Public School board because I believe that each and every student in Durham deserves the very best educational opportunities available. My experience working as the Truancy Court Program Director and my service on the Maureen Joy Charter School Board underscores and strengthened that commitment. Moreover, my background, experience and relationships, makes me the ideal candidate to bridge the differing viewpoints on many issues facing the school board, including charter schools.
For over eight years I have served on a public school board—The Maureen Joy Charter School Board where I am currently Vice President. Under North Carolina law, charter schools are public schools funded by taxpayer dollars. Like traditional public schools, charter schools are free and open to all students through a lottery system much like the Durham Public School’s magnet lottery. At Maureen Joy, our board, consisting of all volunteers, is singularly focused on providing our students with an excellent education that will prepare them for college, career, family and citizenship. As one of the first charter schools in Durham, Maureen Joy opened its doors in 1997 and it has become invaluable to our community. It strives to serve as a model of how urban public schools can provide a comprehensive educational program that puts students on a path to college. The school serves students that all too often are marginalized in the public education system. Maureen Joy has an all minority student population, with 92% of students receiving free or reduced meals. Over one third of Maureen Joy’s students receive special education services such as ESL and EC. Like traditional public schools, Maureen Joy provides bus transportation and free/reduced meals. But most importantly, Maureen Joy students achieve academically, consistently outperforming their peers across the state and in Durham. Maureen Joy has been classified as “high-growth” for four years in a row and the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction selected Maureen Joy as one of only six charter schools in the state that showed the ability to close the achievement gap for students of minorities and low-income backgrounds. Importantly, Maureen Joy has outperformed every school in Durham that has 65% or more students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch.
Maureen Joy achieves these results without a private endowment or extra funding. Instead, as a charter school, Maureen Joy receives less funding than traditional public schools. What Maureen Joy is doing should serve to inspire Durham’s public schools. It shows that it is possible to close the achievement gap using already existing funding. What’s more is that Maureen Joy is doing exactly what charters were intended to do—be innovators of education that result in improving student education. While replication might not be practicable, I believe that Durham Public Schools must look at schools like Maureen Joy and learn from them; see what they are doing and how that might be incorporated into DPS schools. We must collaborate and work together to strengthen our education system. We must not ignore what’s working in education because of ideological differences; instead, we must put our children first. Working collaboratively rather than competitively we will better serve our students and our community.
Indeed, as part of my board service to Maureen Joy, I have spent the better part of the past year working on collaboration, between Durham Public Schools and the Durham charter schools as well as collaboration among charter schools in Durham. This work has resulted in bringing all the charters in Durham together in what is now called The Durham Charter Collaborative. The purpose of this collaboration is to identify ways charters in Durham can work collaboratively to reduce costs, increase student achievement, and better serve students and the community. On March 17, 2014, I went before the Durham County Commissioners with a two-hour presentation and Q/A on charter school achievement, funding, spending and accountability. The key recommendation I made to the County Commissioners was that a task force be formed to study district-charter collaborations, which I believe they have endorsed.
As for vouchers, as stated in my answer to question 8, I am against vouchers and believe they have no place in our public education system. Based on my reading of the law and review of legal analysis of the voucher system created by our legislators in North Carolina, I also believe vouchers are unconstitutional. Beyond that, vouchers are a poor policy choice that will lead to a less robust education system. It will encourage the creation of private schools that have virtually no oversight and whose motivations may be less about educating student and more about profits. Lawmakers frustrated with aspects of our public education system should work with the system finding ways to improve it rather than abandoned the system through vouchers. Far from creating accountability and improving the education of our students, vouchers will shift monies away from our existing education system further exacerbating budget challenges.
My motivation to seek a position on Durham’s Public School Board is grounded in my commitment to educating all students in Durham, and my experience as the Director of the Truancy Court Program. The Truancy Court Program is a restorative justice program. It is a program designed to identify the root cause of truancy, and work cooperatively with the student’s community—student, parent, and school, to remedy the problem. In addition to serving as a judge, I recruit, train, assign, and supervise truancy court judges that serve all Durham Public Schools. I personally work with school social workers, counselors, principals, assistant principals, school resource officers, and data managers at dozens of Durham Public Schools. Together, we meet with students and parents to help identify what is causing the student not to come to school or to skip classes and help create and put a plan in place that will get the student to regularly attend school and improve their grades. We also address academic and behavioral issues that arise and importantly, we work with students, families and schools to identify potential services that the student or family needs that can help the student achieve, such as tutoring, mental health services, and access to further intervention programs.
Through my work as the Truancy Court Program Director I have had the honor of working with amazing individuals through Durham Public Schools—people truly committed to what is best for children and who tirelessly work to improve their lives. I want to support these people and be on the board that selects our next superintendent, and creates the policies and a strategic plan to empower them so our students receive the excellent education they deserve. Moreover, as the Program Director for Truancy Court, I regularly see students in middle and high school that are academically performing well below grade school level and do not have the skills needed to be successful in a career, technical college or university. Many of our children get passed from grade to grade without being able to read or understand basic concepts in math and science and we lack the necessary interventions to help them academically. This cannot continue to happen, we must ensure that all students receive an education that prepares them for a job, career, family, and to be thoughtful members of our community. My goal in running for school board is singular: to help every student, from the brightest to the most challenged, achieve these goals.
My skills and experience coupled with my absolute dedication to the students in Durham, will allow me to work and communicate with school board members with differing viewpoints. In my professional life as an attorney and general counsel to a corporation, I regularly negotiated with people of strong viewpoints and differing opinion, while maintaining a discussion that was respectful and productive. As a mediator, my work focuses exclusively on working with people who have differing viewpoints, listening to them, finding common ground, and helping them reach a solution collaboratively. This often requires me to use my skills to facilitate difficult conversations on sensitive topics and help individuals expand their ways of thinking on such issues. Through my board service I have also successfully worked with and helped bring together people with distinct and diverse perspective. In my experience, having board members with differing and diverse viewpoints is critical to a healthy organization. Boards need a variety of perspectives, skills and opinions in order to create strong, well-reasoned policy and engage in informed decision-making. While board members should be united in their goal and purpose, it’s the diversity of perspective and background rather than homogeneity that allows a board to best fulfills its mission and serve our community. Having board members in lock step on issues only ensures a myopic approach to problem solving. As a board member both at Maureen Joy and the Conflict Resolution Center, I work with people from a myriad of backgrounds and strive to be respectful, listen, and contribute with a mind towards a common goal. This has proven effective in reaching consensus and has resulted in me being voted into leadership positions on those boards, Vice President and President, respectively.
10. Durham’s school system is facing perhaps one of the most challenging budget years in recent history. What direction will you give to school administration to balance the budget? In what areas would you recommend cutbacks and which services should remain untouched?
Through my service on both the Maureen Joy and the Elna B. Spaulding Conflict Resolution Center board, I am familiar with and understand budgets. Importantly, as part of my board service and in my duties as general counsel, I have personal experience managing budget cuts and balancing budgets in difficult financial climates. To balance the budget, DPS must start by understanding and critically reviewing every aspect of the budget, conducting a cost analysis of every line item in the budget, performing program evaluations on every program offered to our students, and prioritizing and funding programming within the budget constraints. While this will certainly be difficult, it must be done so that we ensure our students receive the education they deserve and we fulfill our fiscal duty to our community.
I have personally spent countless hours going though the DPS budget line by line, met with County officials to ask about the budget, and even compared DPS’s budget to budgets in other counties. I have also met with individuals on the citizen’s budget advisory council. My conclusion, echoed by many officials and other interested parties I met with, is that the DPS budget is cumbersome and unnecessarily difficult to understand. It is not transparent or easily accessible to the public—indeed on the DPS website some of the links to parts of the budget are dead links. And, not all aspects of the budget are available to the public every year. I believe that DPS should create a budget that School Board members and the public can understand—not just at the surface but program-by-program budget numbers, line by line. DPS finances must be transparent and accessible so the public can be confident that public funds are being efficiently and effectively.
The process of balancing the budget and paying for needed programming requires that DPS conduct a cost analysis for each line item in the budget. In my review, I found room for improvement in this area. For example, in the 2013-2014 DPS budget under the line item “Other Insurance and Judgments” DPS spent $314,008.00 while the same line item for Wake County showed $34,222.00 spent. Similarly, under the Telecommunications Services line item in the 2013-2014 budget DPS spent $2,067,167.00 whereas Wake County spent $1,700,717.00. Wake County’s student population is over 149,000 while Durham is about 36,000. Given that Durham’s student population is less than one quarter the size of Wake County, we must understand why DPS is paying more for these items. Another example is legal fees. In the Appendix to the DPS budget it shows DPS spending over $430,000 for legal services whereas Chapel Hill/Carrboro Schools spent about $100,000. Both school districts use the same law firm, and while Durham is twice the size of Chapel Hill/Carrboro District that alone does not explain the differential. While DPS’s cost on these three items may be appropriate, it must be evaluated to be sure we are being as cost-effective as possible. We could redirect the savings from such line items toward our students in the form of additional teachers, teacher mentoring, social workers and support programs.
Finally, consistent program evaluation is critical to allocating funds effectively. DPS must examine each and every program—conduct a program evaluation to determine what is working, what is not working, what our students need and what they do not. Currently, this is not done for most programming. For any program that is not working, DPS must understand why: Has it been implemented properly? Is it a good program that needs improvement? Or, is it a program that just does not fit the needs of our students? DPS must also look for program duplication—are there programs that are doing the same thing? Could we consolidate programs to better serve students? Once DPS understands exactly where its money is going and what programs should continue, then DPS must have a strategic plan for budget spending. We must prioritize our students’ needs and fund those programs that effectively serve those needs.
For example, in the area of Support Services, DPS must address the suspension issue as well as student behavior. In December DPS conducted a number of Community Conversations where I served as a facilitator and listened to parents and community members express their concern about student discipline at our schools. DPS currently offers a student behavior and suspension prevention program known as PBIS (Positive Behavior Intervention System). Parent feedback on PBIS provided during the Community Conversations made it clear that the program is not being fully implemented at all schools and the evidence, based on the complaints filed, suggests that the program is not working. Moreover, in my work at schools around the districts, I see first hand that it is not being used consistently or completely. Some schools use part of the program while others are still phasing the program into the school. PBIS is designed to be a comprehensive program to address student behavior through teacher training and other tools. The program only works if it is fully implemented in its entirety. DPS should conduct a thorough review of the program to find out how effectively it is being implemented.
DPS should also undertake a critical examination of the Lakeview Alternative School. Currently middle and high school students with serious behavioral problems are sent to Lakeview. According to an analysis from the County Commissioner’s office, during the 2012-2013 school year, DPS spent $27,000 per student at Lakeview. The end of grade test results for Lakeview’s students showed that only 5% of the student passed. Such a disparity between cost and educational outcome should be a cause of concern and DPS should conduct a thorough evaluation. We need to be sure these students are truly being served and that funds are being spent effectively and appropriately.
I believe that DPS must be aggressive in its review of the budget so that we can trim certain costs while shifting resources to bolster other areas like teacher pay, support and increased placement of social workers in schools.
11. The previous superintendent, Eric Becoats, resigned amid allegations of financial irregularities in his office. What oversight was lacking that led to Becoats’ financial questions? How should this oversight policy be rectified? What is the board seeking in a new superintendent? Are there aspects of the search process that could be improved?
The School Board absolutely needs to have clear policies governing spending and a solid understanding of the DPS budget so that the financial issues that arose last year do not recur. In October, records revealed Becoats spent $20,157.86 on his district-issued credit card from July 2012 to June 2013 for out-of-state conferences, dinners and lunches with colleagues, economy-class air travel, hotels, room service, limousines from the airport, meetings, workshop supplies, flowers for recognition of employee achievements and gifts to a host family in Mexico. To the extent such charges were not permitted, the School Board should have had a policy on credit card usage and monitoring, which it did not. Going forward, there must be such a policy put in place (if it has not already happened). The School Board should also pay careful attention to the Superintendent’s Office Budget. For the 2013-2014 school year, the Superintendent’s Office budget allocated $72,000 of which $33,288.00 is for professional development and travel. To the extent the School Board wants to limit travel it should ensure that the budget reflects that. The other financial problem that arose was the identifying of the $15million fund balance. As a member of two boards, I found this particularly troubling and difficult to understand. I believe that if Board Members have a fuller understanding of the budget and the budget is easier to understand (as I advocated in my response to question 10) such financial problems should not arise.
The selection of Durham’s next superintendent presents the opportunity to transform Durham Public Schools. Durham’s public schools are facing numerous challenges as a result of changing demographics as well as new state laws. With the selection of a strong, bright superintendent willing to take bold steps, Durham Public Schools has the potential to become an education leader in North Carolina. I understand that DPS has or will engage a search firm to assist with the process of selecting Durham’s next superintendent. I believe we should conduct a national, or, at least, a regional search to ensure we have the most qualified pool of applicants. We should also reach out to education and community leaders for their input and guidance. Our new superintendent should have the following characteristics and values:1. Strong, intelligent, entrepreneurial leader willing to make difficult decisions targeted at improving and reviving education in Durham. Someone that sees what is possible in our education system and prepared to take on the challenges presented.