Matt Sears | Candidate Questionnaires | Indy Week
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Matt Sears 

Candidate for Durham Board of Education

Name as it Appears on the Ballot: Matt Sears

Full legal name, if different: Matthew Mitchell Sears

Date of Birth: March 5, 1979

Campaign Web Site:

Occupation & Employer: Director, School Services at North Carolina New Schools

Work phone: 919­-277-­3782 Cell Phone: 919­-389-­1867


1. If elected, what are your top priorities?

1. Investment in Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I have not been able to quantify DPS’s level of engagement in SEL, but I have been researching and attending conference sessions on SEL for the past year and believe it to be a investment the district can make to help students better engage and participate in school. SEL teaches students selfmanagement, social awareness, and responsible decision making skills, among others. I would look to create a working group to investigate the value SEL could bring to DPS. A group of students, PTA members, teacher leaders, administrators, and Board members could validate the practices, analyze costs and make recommendations on its implementation. I would want to ensure that investment in this kind of program (or any program for that matter) has buy in at ALL levels before looking to allocate resources. Too many programs are billed as “quick fixes” and fizzle out after a year or two. I would want SEL to be implemented for a defined period of time, with measures and checkpoints, and have outside evaluation of its implementation. I believe that investing in SEL would help us address some of the needs of atrisk students as well as help mitigate against suspensions. Please see the following resources for more information on SEL: and

2. Deepen the community’s engagement in our schools and the work of the Board. Having attended many Board committee meetings in my preparations for running, and having interviewed all but one of the current Board members, I feel that large blocks of the community are disengaged in the work of the schools and the Board. It feels like a lot of attention is paid to the schools when testing results and graduation rates are published annually, but the supporting work largely happens beneath the radar of the general public. The Board seems to be on a trajectory of increased respect in the community and I want to see that strengthened and community engagement deepened. This community has so much intellectual capital embedded in it and getting more of that power focused on the schools would help the Board and schools make more informed decisions that affect students and families.

3. Teachers are the most important factor in student learning. A great teacher can teach a student a year and a half worth of material in just a year. A poor teacher can set a child back a full year, meaning it will take two subsequent year of great teachers to catch that child up. I want to further develop the sense that Durham is a great place for great teachers to teach. The teaching profession is suffering from stagnant wages and reduced support and I think we do some things at the local level through policies and funding. I will also work with the Board to continue to push back against legislation that hurts teachers and education. But I want us to go further: I want all teachers to get the feedback and support they need to develop their practice; I want teachers to have development plans that include training that benefits their work and their students; I want teachers to feel the importance of collegiality; and I want the community to hold up its teachers as partners in developing our youth. When we invest in our teachers in this way, they will return that investment to our children. Teachers are doing great work now, but we are asking too much of them and giving them too little, and we are seeing the results as teachers leave the profession. Be it in the Triangle, NC, or nationally, I want Durham to be known as a great place for great teachers.

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.

Throughout my career and community service experiences, I have focused on working hard for students and families in our community. During my teaching career at Hillside and Hillside New Tech, I became a leading mathematics teacher both through traditional instruction and through Project Based Learning (PBL). At New Tech, I was one of two teachers in the national New Tech Network to show that PBL could effectively be done in mathematics which led to my presenting at several conferences and the founding of the NC PBL Conference in 2009. After participating in the Kenan Fellows Program for Curriculum and Leadership Development in 2006-08 as a teacher, I co-led additional Fellowship opportunities and now serve on the Board of Advisors for the program, which is run through the Kenan Institute at NC State University. In my current role as a Director for School Services at NC New Schools, a nonprofit that serves public high schools across NC, I have spent three years leading statewide education efforts, including innovations at the City of Medicine Academy, Southern High School, Neal Middle School and Lucas Middle School in Durham. At New Schools, I lead teams at twenty schools around NC by communicating with teacher and principal coaches onsite at schools, analyzing school data with schools so that they may design meaningful Action Plans, and coordinating general and specialized professional development opportunities. I also lead our organization's work on learning technologies by developing blended (face-to-face and online) professional development, capturing quality teaching and learning on video for dissemination, and engaging teachers and principals through social media and online communities.

I am a graduate of the Durham City/County’s Neighborhood College program and am currently working at organizing teacher support networks with other parents at our children’s daycare.

3. How do you define yourself politically and how does your political philosophy show itself in your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I feel strongly that educating its children is one of the best investments a community can make. I also believe that a community needs to voice its concerns, demand oversight, and be consulted on important decisions that have meaningful impacts on its citizens—in this case the children and families of Durham.

I have dedicated my professional and personal time to investing in the education of our young people. I owned that investment as a teacher, working summers to better my professional practice, help DPS better assess student achievement, and sharing my work with peers locally and nationally. I participated in numerous fellowships, including a Fulbright experience teaching in rural India for a semester in 2008. I coached golf at Hillside for five years and spent time outside of school challenging young people to invent, understand career opportunities, and share their work with their peers and the public. With the help and support of my colleagues in all of this work, I was honored to be Durham Public Schools’ Teacher of the Year in 2009 and was given the Excellence in Teaching Alumni Award from the School of Education at UNC Chapel Hill.

I have also spent my career advocating for students and their families. As a teacher and citizen I frequently emailed the Board of Education and challenged school administrators on: school funding, equity in Exceptional Children’s services, redistricting, teacher compensation, and college readiness.

I want to see the Board of Education increase community engagement with DPS, its school and its staff. I would like to see the community agree to take on meaningful, lasting support programs such as Social and Emotional Learning rather than programs that while well-intentioned, fizzle out after a year or two (I saw multiple examples of this as a teacher). I will reach out to our community as Board member. I will ask tough questions about how we spend our dollars. I will work hard to ensure the public is interested and can clearly see how we are working to improve student achievement for all students in DPS.

4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some popularity points with voters.

To provide an education that meets the constitutional requirements by the state (sound, basic education) and the mission of DPS for all students may require that funding our schools and support programs be unequal. Not all children enter our schools at equal starting positions nor receive the same external supports once in school. Examples include: preparedness for kindergarten, letter and phonics skills to start reading, having social and emotional management skills, having access to supplemental materials at home. To get Durham’s education system to be more equitable, we may have to invest more heavily in support programs at specific schools, or grade levels, or targeted at students with special needs. If DPS can get to a place where every student has an equal chance to be successful in their education, the spending required to make it happen may have to be unequal. Equality in school spending is a goal that resonates with me as a voter and taxpayer. But, the return on investment as a result of targeted spending will be worth it: increased intellectual capital of our students, successful transitions to citizenship, and reinvestment of our students in the community as adults.

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?

Please note my response to Question 4 as part 1 of this answer.

Furthermore, I will work to ensure that the district becomes more purposeful in personalizing education for each student. We have so many great examples of community support programs, supplemental programs and services, and principals and teachers that are catching kids before they lose interest in school, find alternative support groups (gangs in some cases), or simply fall through the cracks and are left to navigate school and life by themselves. I will work to hire a superintendent that has experience in helping schools ensure that each student is reached, by someone, by some program and that those people and programs are meeting the learning and social/emotional needs of that child. I will push this idea into my work as Board member and consistently raise it with DPS staff and as a parent of DPS-bound children (my oldest daughter will enter DPS kindergarten in 2015).

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?

I was recently at the South by Southwest Education Conference in Austin, TX (SXSWedu) and attended a session moderated by Timothy Shriver on Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). I have spent the last year investigating SEL and I came away from that session with statistics and examples of ways in which focusing on purely academic teaching does not prepare student to navigate our education systems effectively. The Indy Weekly’s recent article (March 2014) articulated two of the issues surrounding suspensions/success in the same way as Mr. Shriver and his panelists.

First, all students do not innately come to school knowing how to manage their social and emotional needs and frustrations. I’m not sure I did when I entered elementary school. But those skills can be overtly and covertly taught to students and the work being done by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) is proving that teaching students those skills is effective in increasing student performance and reducing risky behaviors (CASEL sites these as drug use, violence, bullying and dropping out). (

Second, the panel discussed in depth the need for adults to be trained to teach SEL skills to students. Doing so will further students’ abilities to self manage, but will also further educate adults on child and adolescent psychology. The panel admitted that bullying by peers and occasional abuses of power by adults will always be present in schools (though we can work to minimize them), but through SEL programs we can help students learn how to handle those situations in the moment, move past them, and find ways to preserve their dignity and voice. During my teaching in DPS, I did feel qualified and confident to teach and manage children, but I would have appreciated the chance to be trained to better recognize, meet and respect students’ needs.

As a Board member, I will seek to assess our district’s use of, knowledge of, and plans for growing SEL. I will work build community support for SEL with families, teachers, and school administration.

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.

As a community want 100% of great teachers to receive support to develop as professionals and be rewarded via community appreciation, financially, and with the contracts they were promised when entering the profession. To single out a small percentage of teachers to earn four-year contracts is divisive and as a former teacher and current education professional, I have seen the differences between faculties that work in isolation and faculties that come together for the common good. We want our teachers working together in schools and this law will lead to competition, not deeper collaboration. I applaud the Board for taking legal, democratic steps to challenge the laws validity and fight for the benefits teachers were promised when they entered the profession.

That said, during the legal challenge, I want our Board to work to find ways to nullify the laws effects (again, legally). The Board controls local salary supplements, local budgets, and I encourage the current Board, and will work on the next Board, to find ways to distinguish Durham as a great place for great teachers.

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?

Stagnant wages and reduced support are forcing great educators to leave our classrooms and preventing talented people from entering the profession. I will work to enact local policies and allocate local funding that will support, respect, and protect DPS teachers. See Question 7.

The responsibility of a member of the Board of Education is to create the best educational environment possible for the 33,000+ students that come through our schools’ doors every day. While charters are a valuable part of our community, I will focus my work as a Board member on DPS’s students, day in and day out.

That said, I do not want to see charters grow further in North Carolina in areas that are becoming saturated with charter schools (like Durham), and I oppose for-profit Charter Management Organizations (CMO’s). Charter schools are designed to be places of innovation and experimentation in education and they serve that role in their current capacity. Charter schools were not designed to be competitive alternatives to Local Education Agencies.

I oppose school vouchers and support the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association lawsuits to block the implementation of the school vouchers legislation.

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 oppose school vouchers and support the North Carolina Association of Educators and the North Carolina School Boards Association lawsuits to block the implementation of the school vouchers legislation.

The responsibility of a member of the Board of Education is to create the best educational environment possible for the 33,000+ students that come through our schools’ doors every day. Collaboration with champions of charter schools will always be a part of the community conversation and I would look forward to learning from and with my colleagues, be them affiliated with charter schools or not. In my current professional role and in my personal/community work, I frequently engage in learning from and with charter school board members, principals, teachers and students.

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?

In the December joint meeting between the Board of Education and the County Commissioners, which I attended, there was conversation regarding the DPS financial audit that found several million dollars available that had been thought to be inaccessible as they were allocated for other purposes. In that meeting, one of the Commissions put forth the idea/exercise of publicly building the budget from the ground up in an effort to make the budget more transparent and easier to understand. As a new Board member, I would welcome the opportunity to participate in such an exercise with the community. While the Board votes on approving budgets, it is our community including parents, students, educators, and all taxpayers that should and do provide input as to the value of various programs. It is up to the Board, DPS staff and community to determine the effectiveness of programs. Given that the public conversation happens and all concerned parties are heard, I will fall back on my campaign platform to guide my votes: Are we allocating funding to make sure all students have an equitable chance at a great education (even if that means unequal funding)? and, Are we making every effort to ensure that each classroom has a great teacher working with those students?

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?

I would like to see DPS spend time and effort to vet the search firms for their previous successes in bringing talented people to their clients (districts). If this vetting yields a firm that the Board feels can deliver strong candidates, then DPS should not simply select the lowest bidder, but invest in the firm that will give us the best chance for bringing a longterm, successful superintendent to Durham. I believe this has happened with the selection of Ray and Associates. I want the Board to engage the community to create a list of qualities of a successful superintendent and prioritize those qualities. Once those qualities and priorities are decided, I feel that a closed application, interview, and selection process gives our community the best chance to attract a talented superintendent.

Among the qualities I hope the community will identify in partnership with the Board are:

● Integrity

● The ability to recognize and develop talented principals and central office staff

● The ability to effectively supervise/evaluate principals and central office staff

● The willingness and ability to engage with community partners that results in tangible quality outcomes for students

● The ability to focus on student achievement and student need by both addressing immediate needs and long term planning

● Is respected by teachers and the community in their current district

It is the Board’s responsibility to ask district leadership the right questions to ensure that a) rules are followed appropriately, b) the public trusts the school system, and c) students’ and families’ interests are at the forefront of decision making. I will maintain this focus on the Board and use my experience as a teacher and as an educational professional that knows and understands the Department of Public Instruction and educational legislation to ask tough question of our district’s leaders.

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