Four years ago, the race for the Durham County Board of Commissioners was rife with conflict. The board was sharply divided over the controversial 751 South project, and the developers launched a super PAC to support the candidates who voted for it.
But unlike the 2012 election, there has been little, if any strife in the 2016 Democratic primary, even with 10 candidates running for five seats.
This year, the candidates share similar but not identical views on managing the jail, funding public schools, access to universal pre-K, job creation and economic development. Almost all have government experience either as county employees, elected officials or appointees to local boards. As a result, the campaigns have become a quest to show who can best understand the complexities of the county and govern in the best interest of all.
Criminal justice and the jail
Conditions inside the Durham County jail – including inmate deaths and the firing of two detention officers who allegedly used excessive force on a detainee – have some calling for an investigation of the facility. The commissioners control funding for the jail but not day-to-day management.
Elaine Hyman said she would support an investigation by experts, but not civilians, whose “background, passion and agendas” may be different. “We would look for people who have investigatory experience, and can do data analysis,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for the sheriff and the difficulty of his job.” The tension in the jail is also a byproduct of a larger problem in the criminal justice system: People charged with misdemeanors or non-violent offenses are stuck in cells for months, awaiting trial because they can’t afford bond. “There’s a bottleneck, a problem with how fast people can get through the process,” Hyman said.
Michael Page (incumbent) said the commissioners should exercise more oversight into jail operations, but it is limited in its oversight. “We can be more hands-on, expecting progress and inspection reports,” Page said. “but I’m not sure what more we can do. I’m searching for ways to manage without micromanaging it.” Part of the problem, he said, is also a social justice issue: the number of nonviolent offenders in the jail, some of whom are too poor to post bond. And state funding cuts have forced local courts to cut positions that helped expedite inmate processing. Misdemeanants could participate in work release programs, rather than stay in jail. “We had a clerk to support getting these warrants moving so guys aren’t in the system,” Page said. “If the county can help support a new effort or one like that one –our jail should be half full.”
Brenda Howerton (incumbent), who sits on the Durham Crime Cabinet, calls the recent incidents, “a concern for me.” With the help of the North Carolina Association of Counties, she said she’ll lobby the legislature to change state laws that allow 16- and 17-year-old to be placed in adult jails. North Carolina and New York are the only two states that treat that age group as adults in the criminal justice system.
Tara Fikes said county commissioners should recognize there is a “community concern” and call for an independent, third-party assessment of the jail to ensure “that we are treating inmates properly, that we are following standard, acceptable guidelines for jail administration, to see if there are areas where there is a need for some reform.
Likewise, James Hill would support an independent board to investigate jail conditions. “It will make it more transparent, he said, adding that “most of the people are in there awaiting trial. They have to be treated humanely He also said people should not be jailed for nonviolent crimes.
Ellen Reckhow (incumbent), a member of the Durham Crime Cabinet, said the current jail population, roughly 480, is lower than it was in 2010, when 580 people were incarcerated. She credits a pre-trial services program, which she helped launch, that evaluates nonviolent offenders and diverts them from jail and into supervision of the pretrial staff. “They can release even more people without compromising safety at all,” she said. “Putting people in jail for nonpayment of child support; that doesn’t make sense. And the second thing is, I’m interested in diverting more mentally ill people out of the jail.”
The commissioners have encouraged the sheriff to bring in “outside help” from the National Institute of Corrections to perform an independent review, said Wendy Jacobs (incumbent). “We want to do whatever we can to make sure that the best conditions possible exist in the jail,” ”There’s obviously a waiting list, and if that cannot be done in a timely manner, I believe that the sheriff is open to having another entity come in and help with that,” Jacobs said. “But in terms of what we can do, we’ve made it very clear to the sheriff that anything that (he) needs, any way that we can be supportive in terms of funding for programs or resources that we are there to help that,” Jacobs said.
Heidi Carter, who served on the county public health board, takes a similar approach to curbing violence. “Gun violence is an epidemic,” Carter said. “What researchers see is that violence spreads like a disease. The number one risk factor for violence is being exposed to it yourself.”
Public school funding
More than a third of the county budget goes to the public school system. The commissioners appropriates the local portion of school funding, which the Board of Education then allocates to specific programs and budget items. Recently, there has been scrutiny of the DPS budget because of the amount of central office spending as compared to classroom spending. It is expected the board will cut $7.75 million in systemwide support services this year.
Carter, who spent 12 years on the DPS board, said the previous administration did not provide as much budget transparency as current Superintendent Bert L’Homme and his financial team have. “They are giving the community what it wants to see,” she said, adding that it’s difficult to compare central office spending with other school districts because how expenses are coded. She is concerned about Durham public schools’ increasing levels of segregation by race and class. “Public schools are the place where people can come together, to eat lunch together, to sit on the bus or the bleachers together. It’s where we learn to love one another. If we’re not doing that in our public schools, I don’t know where it’s going to happen.”
Jacobs, a former public school teacher, spent two years on the DPS superintendent’s budget advisory committee. “We know that we are funding schools at a reasonable level compared to other counties. But at the same time we also have a lot of challenges,” Jacobs said. “We have a high poverty school system, we have a very high ESL population, high handicapped population, high special needs. We also have a lot of special programs that other schools don’t have. So a lot of times it is hard to compare and make those across the board analysis.” However, Jacobs said the scrutiny has “helped us look deeper into the budget, and I think we all recognize, the school board, superintendent, that everybody recognizes that the classroom and the teachers must be the priority,” Jacobs said.
To develop a strong economy, we need good schools, said Hyman. “I would be willing to give them the funding they need to ensure the dollars reach the classroom.”
Fikes said that in-depth financial conversations and goal-setting should happen year-round, not just at budget time. “I’m not certain that there has been that kind of conversation.”
Page, who served on the Board of Education from 2000 to 2004, said any funds that don’t directly benefit the classroom should be especially scrutinized. Some central office positions could be eliminated or scaled back. “At one point we talked about eliminating transportation for after school, he said. “I thought that was a travesty. But we have to look at the classroom from 7:30 to 3:30, and make that the priority. We have to go back and line by line, look at where we’re overspending.”
In speaking with teachers, Howerton said, she heard schools need more parental involvement. It means having some kind of instructional training for parents so they can advocate for their children.” The school system and commissioners are drafting a memorandum of understanding, although it has not yet been released. Howerton said she recommended that the county manager hire a mediator, “so we can create some real results. We have to be able to talk.”
The role of the commissioners is to raise issues, said Reckhow. “We have a bully pulpit. But I don’t want this to be a situation where we’re pointing figures. We need to own the issues as a community. We need look at all strategies to help disadvantaged youth come into school really ready to learn.”
Job creation and economic development
While Durham has attracted high-wage tech and life science jobs, there are fewer opportunities for workers with associate’s degrees, certificates or even just high school diplomas to earn a living wage.
As the leader of My Brother’s Keeper, a program that serves young men of color, Page said he sees 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds with few job prospects. “These young men said, ‘We need adult leadership. Help us. Show us.’ These are bright, articulate young men who deserve an opportunity for a quality life. With appropriate support, they can make it through that.”
“We don’t need children being in the streets without working,” Howerton said. She would like to bring more manufacturing jobs to Durham, especially northeastern part of the county, and if necessary, use economic incentives to do so. Durham Tech, Howerton said, also should offer certifications and training specific to these jobs.
People with criminal records find it especially difficult to find jobs. Jacobs said county government provides temporary work to some former inmates, but she would encourage the business community to do the same. Private businesses can participate in a new state program that provides relieves employers of liability if they hire a person with a criminal background. “I’ve been to the job fairs that are for people in our community who have a criminal background,” she said. “And it’s heartbreaking, because I’ll be in a room filled with mostly men of color who want a job who want to work. And they’ll maybe be a handful of employers who are there.
Of the 10,155 jobs created in the last three years, more than half are jobs in science, technology, engineering or math, Reckhow said. “That’s wonderful, but our young people aren’t necessarily prepared for those jobs. We need to be more active in seeking out companies that can bring in good-wage jobs for people who don’t have a college degree.” She cited the Harris Beverage company, which is expanding in East Durham. The county helped Harris Beverage by providing utility extensions. The county could consider buying land around that location to make an industrial park. Other areas include the Highway 98, Durham Freeway and U.S. 70 corridors. “There’s some real opportunity, Reckhow said.
Durham has become a “two-tiered community,” Hill said, “of the creative class and another group that serves them. We need more economic diversity,” including vocational and trade schools.
Hyman agreed that the economic disparity between East Durham and the rest of the city is striking. “There have been public-private partnerships, but they haven’t reached East Durham as fast,” she said. She would advocate recruiting employers that will hire people who live in that area. “They need make a decent living,” she said. “There not enough jobs that pay a decent wage.”
Communities that have been successful in bridging an economic divide, Carter said, “believe that raising wages benefits not just the individual but the economy in general.” Large companies may receive more incentives than small businesses, especially in low-income areas. “We should think about our underserved corridors and help support our local entrepreneurs,” she said. “We need more equity and balance inincentives.”
Note to readers
This story is condensed from in-person interviews conducted by Bull City Rising, www.bullcityrising.com. Glyndola Massenburg-Beasley and Fred Foster, an incumbent, did not respond to requests for interviews and comment.