Becoats backers applaud ex-superintendent's successes

jalexander@newsobserver.comDecember 20, 2013 

— A black member of the Durham school board who unsuccessfully rejected Superintendent Eric Becoats’ resignation says his accomplishments outweighed his mistakes.

Vice chairwoman Minnie Forte-Brown, his strongest supporter, did not want to speak about Becoats on Friday. But Omega Curtis Parker said she was not surprised by Thursday’s events.

“I could see it coming,” she said.

The board’s 4-3 majority vote to accept Becoats’ resignation, effective Dec. 31, split along racial lines. Forte-Brown, Parker and Fredrick Davis, the board’s three black members, voted against it.

“People look at things differently,” Parker said in an interview. “I did not want to see him resign because when I think of the progress the school system has made, I look at that as a positive thing.”

“The accomplishments he mentioned in his closing remarks, that’s amazing,” she added.

Efforts to reach most board members Friday were unsuccessful.

DeWarren Langley of Durham, a city advisory board member who follows Durham politics, said the racial split reminded him of when he was in high school a decade ago, when every school board vote seemed to split on racial lines.

“People of public service should always work to find agreement where it’s possible,” he said. “I just hope they learn to work together more cohesively.”

Donna Rewalt, an advocate for parents in the Durham Public Schools, said parents were mixed on whether Becoats should be fired. Most wanted to see the focus put back on the students.

“From a community standpoint, I just hope things keep moving along,” on issues such as reducing the achievement gap and finding suspension alternatives, she said. “I hope that it doesn’t distract from the work that needs to be done.”

After the board accepted his resignation, Becoats outlined his accomplishments in brief remarks:

• having “no low-performance schools under the state’s accountability model for the first time in district history (2011-12).

• raising the graduation rate to 80 percent (2013).

• meeting the district’s strategic plan one year in advance.

• having 100 percent of middle schools meeting or exceeding expected growth in 2011-12.

• being named Superintendent of the Year by the National Alliance of Black School Educators.

Financial issues proved the superintendent’s downfall.

No issue was bigger than when a recent audit revealed the schools had $15 million more in unassigned fund balance than the board originally reported. Board Chairwoman Heidi Carter reached out to the county commissioners in June because the school board thought it had only $4 million in unassigned funds, far less than the typical $16 million it has normally kept in the account to help offset state budget cuts. The commissioners allocated another $2.4 million, raising taxes to do so.

Commissioners Chairman Michael Page said that disappointed him most. He blamed the school system’s former financial officer, who retired in March, for providing the superintendent with the wrong information.

“You rely on that person to provide the answers that you need,” Page said.

Becoats reported that information to the board, and Carter delivered it to the commissioners.

“The Board of Education depends on the superintendent to present an accurate accounting of what our true financial status is,” Carter said Tuesday. “I feel foolish having gone in front of the county and pleaded poverty, when that doesn’t appear to be the actual case now.”

Hugh Osteen, deputy superintendent of operations, will serve as acting superintendent, while the board begins the search for the next superintendent.

Alexander: 919-932-2008; Twitter: @jonmalexander1

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