Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Sendolo Diaminah
Date of Birth: January 27, 1986
Campaign Web Site: www.sendoloforschoolboard.com
Occupation & Employer: Community Organizing Trainer for BOLD (Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity)
Home phone: (919) 464-4855
1. If elected, what are your top priorities?
The first thing I would do to improve Durham Public schools would be to make parent, teacher, and youth engagement a regular part of school and school system decision-making. Truly strengthening school-based management through effective School Improvement Teams made up of students, parents, administrators, and community representative. Unfortunately, not all schools use School Improvement Teams as they should. These councils need to have real decision-making power; they should do more than just “advise.” We have the mechanism in place. Now 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. I believe I am the only candidate with the skill set to make that happen.
Second, I would bring back the teacher mentorship program that was phased out in the last few years of budget cuts. Good teachers are the lifeblood of strong schools and again and again I have heard from high-performing educators that the teaching mentor program was key to their success and their decision to stay in Durham Public Schools.
Third, I would deepen the partnership between DPS and pre-k early literacy programs. Too often children are already behind when they arrive in our kindergarten classrooms. By the time our students reach high school, the problem has often deepened leading to increased suspension and drop out rates. We can avoid problems that are a decade away by ensuring all our students have a strong educational foundation.
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.
Community organizing work is fundamentally about leadership. One example of where my leadership resulted in concrete gains for our community was the campaign in 2010 around the DPS budget. Through this campaign, and with the help of the Durham Association of Educators, we were able to preserve 185 teaching jobs. In this process I played the lead role in studying and educating our members around the budget and budget processes.
An additional example of my leadership experience was the campaign to relocate the families from Lincoln apartments. In the fall of 2012 one hundred and fifty families received notice that they had one month to find a new place to live because the apartment complex was closing. Because this was a low-income housing development and Durham has a dwindling stock of affordable housing, this was a tremendous blow to these families. Many were frightened, angry, or hopeless. However, by going door to door, listening to people in their living rooms, talking with existing community leaders, engaging city officials, and studying eviction law, I was able to help residents regain a sense of hope and develop a plan of action. As a result residents were able to get the city to help relocate the vast majority of tenants. As a result of this work, our group, People’s Durham, won the 2013 Indy Citizenship Award.
3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?
Transformative organizing is the political tradition that I am rooted in. It is a tradition that draws its philosophy and practice from the great social justice movements of the world: the labor movement, the feminist movement, as well as the anti-war and the civil rights movement. The heart of transformative organizing is the belief that the people most affected by an issue or an injustice must themselves be at the center of transforming that issue and that, in the process, those people liberate and transform themselves and society. It is a democratic and participatory political philosophy that puts progressive values into practice, emphasizes the contributions of everyday people and works towards a society where all people can develop to their greatest potential.
The very first element of my platform, democratizing school decision-making, is a direct expression of the transformative organizing philosophy. The other two major planks are the result of deep listening to teachers and parents who shared with me policies that would make a major difference in their lives. I decided to run for school board not because I had all the answers, but because I am part of a movement of people deeply committed to the transformation of our schools. Our platform is a reflection of a movement of people, not of any individual.
As mentioned above, a clear example of where my leadership resulted in concrete gains for our community was the campaign in 2010 around the DPS budget. Through this campaign, and with the help of the Durham Association of Educators, we were able to preserve 185 teaching jobs. In this process I 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.
4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.
I suspect that my strong opposition to the expansion of charter schools will cost me popularity with some voters. I have spoken with a number of parents who have removed their children from public schools because of the challenges they faced. The reality is that our public schools, while they are the best hope we have for educating all children, are also flawed and need ongoing work to achieve their purpose of serving every child. Some parents and voters see charters as a way of getting around the problems in public schools. I do not believe that this will work. Instead I think it has been and will continue to create a separate and unequal system of schools because most charters do not provide English Language Learner (ELL) services, free and reduced lunch, or transportation and the majority of students in District 2 rely on these services. Taking a stand against charter expansion and challenging the notion that they actually offer more choice could potentially cost me popularity, but I firmly believe it is best for the people of my district.
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?
As a transformative organizer, building a community based on justice is at the heart of my calling. This election is about bringing community organizing onto the school board. The vision of our campaign, and of our broader movement, is for schools to be built up as centers of justice and deep democracy. We want schools to be community centers where Durham comes together to honestly face our collective challenges and mobilize our resources to overcome the injustices that plague our city, whether those stem from the Art Pope-controlled state legislature or from long histories of racism and economic inequality. When people get a voice in the decisions that affect them, not just in government elections, but in the functioning of institutions as basic as our schools, we’re talking about really deepening and expanding democracy in our city, which is the foundation of any strong community.
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?
Because children of color and children with disabilities face a tremendous amount of challenges in their lives and development, they often need specific attention and resources. As resources are cut, the system relies less and less on having an adequate team of highly-skilled professionals and more and more on removing children seen as “problems” from the classroom. This is the way that seemingly neutral policies become, in practice, forms of institutionalized racism and ablism (discrimination against people with disabilities). More than anything, what suspension rates and disparities reveal the serious challenges our schools face in meeting the specific needs of children of color and children with disabilities and, given the low level of resources at our disposal, a reliance on punitive rather than restorative practices.
I also believe that literacy, particularly pre-k early literacy, has an important connection to discipline issues and the school-to-prison pipeline. As I mentioned earlier, students who are behind in kindergarten too often stay behind and become disheartened, disruptive and at risk for dropping out. A focus on pre-K literacy can change these outcomes for many students, including those with exceptional needs.
Finally, I want to point out that children of color make up the overwhelming majority of the children in our school system and are not minorities. This is important because we are talking about an issue facing the majority of the children in our schools and a majority of families in our city. This is true for Durham, but is becoming increasingly true for school systems across the country, as the population of public schools in increasingly made up of children of color and children from low-income families.
As a BOE member I would ensure implementation of restorative practices and suspension alternatives, as well as advocating for more support services, like counselors and social workers, so that every student gets the attention they deserve.
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.
The elimination of due process through the new 25% contracts contributes to the undermining of the professionalism of teaching in our state and thus a loss of skilled teachers. It creates divisiveness among teachers, pitting them against each other for the pittance of a bonus that actually requires them to give up their rights to be protected from unfair dismissal.
I strongly support the legal challenge to the 25% because it shows respect for teachers and the learning of our students as well as a refusal to participate in an illegal and immoral attack on our public schools. Going further, I support Durham exploring a local due process procedure as Buncombe county is doing, which would create local board-level policy protecting teachers from arbitrary firings. These are the kinds of brave and necessary stands that school boards must take in this moment in our state when the general assembly has set out to dismantle teaching and public schools.
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?
The last legislative session was a clear attack on our public schools, and a move in the direction of privatization that will continue to increase income and racial segregation in schools.
School vouchers are the flagship policy of the privatization agenda that the GA is attempting to advance, which furthers inequality and tries to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of low-income communities and communities of color while doing nothing to address the root cause of the problem which is a lack of resources within our public schools. Vouchers do one thing: they siphon public tax dollars away from our struggling public schools and send it to communities that already have plenty. We are literally stealing from our low income children to make private schools more affordable for those who are already wealthy.
The GA’s decision to eliminate master’s degree pay, to refuse pay increases for teachers and to eliminate the Teaching Fellows program shows a profound disrespect for teachers’ professionalism and worth. It will lead to more teachers leaving the state or the profession all together, leaving underdeveloped, under resourced, inexperienced teachers to make their own way in our schools with little support.
Strong public schools are the bedrock of our state and the GA’s policies are blasting away at that foundation. Of course, these egregious attacks on our schools and communities have and will continue to have another effect: bringing educators and communities together to stand up for our schools and our rights.
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 strongly oppose using public money for private school vouchers. Our state constitution says that public money must be used exclusively for public schools. Vouchers are clear violation of our state constitution and are an attack on public education. School vouchers are part of a privatization agenda that furthers inequality and tries to take advantage of the legitimate concerns of low-income communities and communities of color. Rather than taking more resources out we need to re-invest in the public school system.
In terms of addressing policy differences with potential board members affiliated with charters, I would oppose any attempts to promote vouchers and charter schools. While I believe in being respectful of differences and building consensus whenever possible, I also believe that there are issues of fundamental principle that should not be compromised. Recognizing and respecting difference does not mean compromising principles and I would be firm, clear, and vigorous in criticizing and opposing privatization schemes that threaten our schools. I would actively organize with the remainder of the board and the broader Durham community to oppose these threats.
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?
This is precisely the kind of conversation that needs to involve all stakeholders and where democratically elected School Improvement Teams should have power to make decisions about their individual school budget and input into the district’s budget priorities. These are the people who are closest to the facts and conditions, they are the ones who will be most impacted, and they should be the ones giving direction to the places to make cutbacks and to leave unharmed. My role would be to set up and listen to the input that comes out of the process, and my recommendations would come out of listening to those who are impacted everyday by the budget.
That being said, I would oppose any and all reductions in literacy programs.
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?
Budgets are among the most important policy documents that an elected body passes. They are not simply a collection of numbers, but an expression of a group’s priorities and values. As such, the district should strive to increase understanding and involvement by all stakeholders in the budgeting process.
DPS needs a superintendent with a strong commitment to transparency and decision-making that involves all stakeholders. If a lack of transparency is part of what was problematic with our last superintendent, then we should start this process by modeling the very transparency we want to see as a part of this job description. The search process for the superintendent needs to involve all stakeholders in DPS. It should not be a private process that only involves the school board.
For a superintendent to lead our school system effectively they must have the confidence and support of parents, educators, administrators, and students. Finally, in addition to strong competence in personnel and financial management skills, a successful candidate should be interested in investing in DPS for the long-term and not simply looking to build a resume to move on to a bigger school system.