Durham Superintendent Eric Becoats needed to go

December 23, 2013 

Eric Becoats was well-meaning as the superintendent of the Durham Public Schools. Few would question his sincere commitment to the children of Durham, where public schools have been inconsistent in terms of performance.

But good intentions aren’t good enough when it comes to a superintendent’s performance, and Becoats’ resignation was needed. His apparent failure to grasp what was appropriate and what was inappropriate with regard to the finances in his office was ultimately what did him in.

The superintendent spent more than $20,000 on his district credit card in a one-year period, paying for dinner and lunches with colleagues, air travel, hotels, limousines from the airport, even flowers for employee achievement.

These actions indicated flawed judgment. How could someone in a public position use a public credit card to make such purchases? Why did it not occur to the superintendent, who made $215,000 a year, that his use of the card was improper?

Then there was his use of a school activity bus and driver to take friends and family to private events, including the Southpoint mall.

Becoats’ handling of these personal transactions was wildly inappropriate. In fact, school board members canceled his card and others, and they tightened the rules on spending and expense reimbursement.

An extra $15 million

But last week, it turned out that an audit had found that the schools had $15 million more in unassigned funds than the school board originally reported. This is something guaranteed to send county commissioners, who provide some school funding, to the moon. Really – $15 million?

For that, Becoats had to answer, and he didn’t do so well.

The system’s performance under Becoats was improved in some ways, but overall fairly modest, not particularly outstanding.

Unfortunately, the vote to accept his resignation was split along racial lines. This is most sad, given the clear case that the superintendent had made mistake after mistake and deserved to go.

Now, for Durham, the task is to find a superintendent who will demand better performance in the classroom and tighten the reins on the school office. It must be someone with experience and with vision.

An attractive job

Durham, the “city of medicine,” is home to Duke University and to part of the Research Triangle Park. The job ought to be supremely attractive to any number of candidates, and the school board should not be in a rush to find a replacement for Becoats. A good candidate, or candidates, can emerge.

A new superintendent also must work to bring the sometimes divided parts of Durham together in the interests of all children. That means bridging a racial divide, and it means standing firmly behind the belief that the schools can appeal to a more diverse student population and can succeed for all children.

Some of Becoats’ problems with finances appeared to be carelessness or just a failure to understand how a public leader must conduct business. That issue should be easily addressed in interviews with prospective superintendents, with the board looking for experience in the area of finance and seeking, even before those interviews, a better track for spending and reporting.

For the Bull City, this is an unfortunate time, but a hopeful one, with a chance to seek new spirit in new leadership. Durham and its children deserve no less.

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