Durham News: Opinion

Steven Unruhe: Hip Durham needs schools to match

Steven Unruhe
Steven Unruhe hlynch@newsobserver.com

I had a quarter-sized piece of my face removed for a melanoma a decade ago. I sat in the waiting room at Duke, chatting with similarly bandaged-up patients who had driven from Ohio and Missouri to see this nationally renowned doctor.

I am finishing this column sitting in Cocoa Cinnamon, just written up in the New York Times. The other night we finished our evening at The Parlour, one of the “33 Best Ice Cream Parlors in America.”

Durham is home to the American Dance Festival. Full Frame hosts the American Documentary Film Festival. DPAC is one of the “Top Five Theaters” in the country.

Durham, my friends, is no longer a North Carolina city. We are not even a Southern city. We are a national city.

A hip life is not cheap. The hand-poured java, the Vietnamese cinnamon double scoop, the acrobatics of Pilobolus all carry a premium price tag. Too many Durham residents can’t afford these gems, but those who can don’t hesitate to pay the price to live in the new Durham.

Durham is not the sleepy city I moved to 33 years ago. We are cosmopolitan. We have always been a haven for African-Americans, home to union-paying jobs in the tobacco factories, a college education at NCCU and business entrepreneurs on Parrish Street. My wife and I pushed a baby stroller past bullhorn hecklers in the early gay pride marches; now Durham is the permanent host for the state parade. Durham’s status as a Sanctuary City is well-known to immigrants.

Durham is hip. Apartments and condos are rising; downtown, there are people on the streets all day and well into the night.

Why, then, do we let the mediocrity of North Carolina education define our goals for our children’s schools? We live in a state where leaders are proud to claim we no longer have the worst-funded educational system – we have made it to next-to-worst.

Is this what we aspire to in Durham?

I have just retired from a career in teaching high school. My young colleagues cannot afford to rent a new apartment, let alone buy a house. Duke is home to a first-class Masters of Arts in Teaching program that struggles to find students because they see no future in North Carolina.

It is pretty simple: we cannot expect to run a nationally acclaimed school system until we are willing to pay for it. This starts by paying teachers, and the custodians and bus drivers who are barely above the poverty line, at a national level.

Twenty-five years ago now City Council member Eddie Davis and I organized a picket line outside the county courthouse calling for Durham’s county commissioners to supplement state pay. It worked, but Durham’s contribution has barely budged since then.

People move to Durham and the Research Triangle for good jobs and a vibrant city; my educator friends have moved to Denver and Boston so they can afford to raise their families. Starting pay in the Boston suburbs comes in just under my final salary in Durham.

It is not just the base salary. Outside the South, teachers are paid for all the other things that make schools work – running clubs, coaching sports, tutoring, mentoring young teachers. Here in Durham, we pay a pittance, if anything, for this same work.

I did tech support throughout my 29-year career, moving from a mainframe running BASIC programs to setting up websites and training for online grading. My “extra” pay never once changed over those three decades. The same has been true for long-time coaches.

Even our educational challenges are really big city problems. Politicians like to talk about test scores, but we know the issue is poverty. And Durham’s poverty is a reflection of its strength – a large African-American population because of our history as the safest city between D.C. and Atlanta; a large immigrant population because of our reputation as a safe haven; a large share of the area’s poor because we offer services and housing.

It is time for Durham to grow up. We need to pay people in our schools on a national scale. Right now, we are embarrassingly far away. We need to attract educators from across the country, and keep them. Yes, this means paying more taxes.

Politicians will take easy shots at “failing schools” in big cities. Indeed, where there is entrenched poverty, schools will struggle. But the best schools in America are in these same big cities. Durham schools will continue to face the challenges of poverty; we should expect our schools to provide a national-class education as well.

We can, and should, demand more from our schools. We can, and should, also demand more from ourselves.

You can reach Steven Unruhe at hookunruhe@gmail.com.