To sit on the Durham Public Schools Board of Education is to wrestle with some of the most central issues facing the county today: revamping a shrinking budget, attracting and retaining teachers to a low-paying profession, and closing a stubborn achievement gap that carries lifelong consequences for disadvantaged students.
This election, few candidates signed up for the task. Incumbent Minnie Forte-Brown and newcomer Xavier Cason, a DPS teacher, are running unopposed in Consolidated Districts A and B, respectively.
In the only contested race, the at-large seat, Steven Unruhe, who taught math, computer science and journalism in DPS for 30 years, is running against Frederick Ravin, a 1998 graduate of Southern High School and a computer systems coordinator at the City of Durham.
Unruhe, who retired in July, is emphasizing his experience as an award-winning teacher. “I understand how the educational process works,” he said, “and I bring a more complex understanding of all of these issues.”
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Ravin, is underscoring his perspective as a product of Durham Public Schools. “I see things from a student perspective,” he said. “I came up through the ranks.”
Since last summer, the DPS budget has been scrutinized, particularly by the county commissioners, for what some view as disproportionate administrative costs compared with spending on the classroom.
Ravin cited his analytical background as a way “to get control on the entire fiscal management” and to examine DPS’s administrative costs. “We don’t want to lay anybody off, but we need to look at the actual hierarchy of DPS and review the process.”
Unruhe said the criticism is the result of greater fiscal transparency under current Superintendent Bert L’Homme. “They’re getting beat up when they moved us forward,” Unruhe said, adding that if elected, he would analyze the spending and then “carefully make decisions about reprioritizing.”
In some cases, the data tells only part of the story, Unruhe said. For example, the transportation budget is larger than in some similar-size districts because DPS runs extra routes for students attending specialized and magnet schools. In addition, DPS runs routes to a lot of individual homes. “We would have a higher dropout rate if we didn’t do that,” Unruhe said. Bus drivers also work full-time and receive benefits. “I would argue that is something the county should do,” Unruhe said. “We haven’t done a good job of explaining that to county commissioners.”
Ravins said he would also allocate more resources to lower-performing students than gifted children. “If you can bring up the entire school score, it helps higher-achieving students,” he said. “A 5.0 GPA is more competitive when they’re trying to get into college.”
In 2014, more than 1,000 teachers left North Carolina for similar jobs in other states, according to the state Department of Public Instruction. That is equivalent to a 14.8 percent turnover, the highest rate since 2010.
In Durham the turnover rate is even higher – 20 percent – due in part to low pay, long hours and a lack of administrative support, Unruhe said.
A teacher with a bachelor’s degree and less than four years’ experience earns $35,000 annually; teachers with advanced degrees and decades of experience can earn about $60,000.
“We need options to keep experienced teachers in the classroom,” Unruhe said. He recommends a starting wage of $40,000, with salaries increasing to $65,000 or $70,000 for veteran teachers.
Unruhe said the board should examine how much time teachers spend on non-instructional activities, lunch duty, for example. “Those are not written in stone.”
Teachers with advanced science, technology and math training, should also be rewarded, Ravin said, with an additional $5,000 in annual salary for those with master’s degrees. “Money isn’t the only answer,” Ravin said. “Teachers need a support system.”
On that point, both candidates agree. Unruhe said there is no method to gauge how or if teachers feel supported by school administrators. He recommends what is known as a 360-degree evaluation, in which a teacher’s peers, supervisors and assistants provide feedback about the working environment. “It tells the administration what’s important,” Unruhe said.
Test scores, the primary measurement for school success, aren’t the best way to evaluate teachers or students, both candidates said.
“Colleges are graded by their alumni,” said Ravin, who would also support single-gender schools to help children succeed. “In DPS, we’ve had people who’ve gone on to do great things. But sometimes you don’t know that for five, 10, 20 years.”
Teachers can better gauge student performance than a test, Unruhe said. “We spend time on objective performance because we don’t trust subjective ones.”
Early voting runs through March 12. Election Day is March 15.