This interview is one in a series of conversations with those candidates seeking seats on the Durham County Board of County Commissioners. BCR thanks The Durham Hotel for kindly offering space for our interview series.
Listen to or read a transcript of the interview in full at this link, or read our recap below.
In our interview with Heidi Carter -- a twelve-year member of Durham's school board, and its current chair -- the candidate's passion for public education couldn't be more evident. And Carter made a strong argument for Durham's commitment to public schools in general, and a rejoinder to some of the concerns raised recently (including in these pixels) on administrative and support spending levels, too.
But Carter is quick to note the BOCC's broader role, and her interest and concerns across a range of platform topics.
"I don't want people to think, oh you know, she's all about schools and that's all she really cares about, because it's much bigger than that," Carter said.
"Will we be able to grow and expand in ways that will bring opportunity and prosperity for all?" Carter asked, noting that she saw three interconnected and very tightly linked" issues driving the answer to that question. "Public education is the first one of those. And then economic growth, our economy. And public health. The three of those must go together."
Carter argued that addressing concerns of the growing economic inequality required a focus on education to address the "huge area of inequality as middle class and upper middle class families move into the future, what we're seeing is that the early learning experiences of their children are becoming more and more enriched," contributing to an achievement gap Carter said tracks with family income.
She also signaled her support for growing the wage base to address inequality.
"I think that communities that have been successful in bridging that divide share some common characteristics, and I think that one of those would be that there is a belief that raising wages actually benefits not only the individual but has an overall benefit on the economy," Carter said. "And that we as communities all sort of succeed and fail together in the long run."
Carter, citing her work on the county's health services oversight board, added her belief that a public health lens can help in thinking of a prevention-oriented approach to challenges like wages or gun violence.
"What researchers around violence see is that it spreads like a disease. And you need to limit the exposure to violence just like you need to limit the exposure to any other communicable disease," Carter said. "The number one risk factor for committing violence is having been exposed to violent trauma yourself, and that there are evidence based public health programs that are out there that are showing success in decreasing violence."
Asked about the County's oversight of functions like public health, Carer articulated the importance of leveraging the designated oversight boards.
"I believe in a body that has oversight over the management of another entity, so like the public health department, listening to what their board says are the needs of the health department," Carter said.
"It doesn't mean blind trust, but it does mean just very careful consideration of what these people who are spending a lot of time listening to their professional staff discuss the needs. I think that's important component of a decision making as a county commissioner," she noted.
She noted that the same principle can be applied to education.
"The same thing goes with their oversight of the school district. They do provide the local funding clearly so they have a very important stake in how things go in the schools from that financial perspective as well as the educational and social perspectives too," Carter added.
"There again, you know, there is a board overseeing the management of the school district, and they work very hard to hire a superintendent that's going to do a good job-- if not, to extricate themselves from one that perhaps isn't. They spend a lot of time reading reports and just building their knowledge base for making good decisions, in the same way that the county does over their many essential services."
Asked about her vision for the future of northern Durham and their citizens' needs, Carter cited her desire to protect watersheds and address questions over bike/pedestrian connectivity, while adding that she would expect to learn more about needs in that county tier as an elected official.
"I feel like mostly what I hear from our northern counterparts is this desire to be sure we protect our open spaces, and our farmlands and forest. I do hear that they would like more like biking and pedestrian infrastructure," Carter said, noting that was traditionally a city function and that bike lanes might be challenged by NCDOT's stewardship of the road network.
She also cited clean drinking water -- the crucial byproduct of effective watershed preservation strategies -- as "the number one public health issue" and crucially important, and worth considering when formulating growth strategies.
"I do think we need to grow in smart and sustainable ways, and an element of that is protecting critical watersheds and doing all that we can to protect those critical watersheds. I would be in favor of doing all that we can to purchase, with other entities, large swaths of open space," Carter said. She cited work in other jurisdictions to do so, as well as the pressures of growth activities such a proposed Publix with adjacent housing units on the city/county border.
"I think light rail in our transit plan is going to be very important also for protecting our watersheds because your transit plan can sort of drive the way you develop," Carter said. "We must continue to move forward on [light rail], because it can drive development, and helps keep it smart, and decreases car emissions.
Carter cited transit's ability to protect areas like Jordan Lake and the New Hope Preserve, as well as its appeal to the coming millennial generation of new residents and to downsizing seniors, as additional reasons for support.
On incentives, Carter struck a balanced path forward, calling for bringing both high-skill/high-wage jobs, while also evaluating greater incentives for middle-wage/middle-skill jobs and ensuring all incentives are cash-flow positive.
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Not unexpectedly, a substantial portion of the interview centered on schools, where Carter's dozen years on the school board shone through in her answers.
Carter addressed the recent questions on comparative spending between school systems by noting it was a long-standing board of education concern, and that DPS leadership had begun this comparative study at the board's behest.
"Those questions were sort of raised by us and we knew that this year we were going to have to make substantial reductions in spending as Bert L'Homme's second budget. And he began making those reductions last year," Carter said.
"And [L'Homme] came on the heels of another administration that had their own philosophy about investments and the sorts of recommendations they made to the board. And they had their own level of transparency, I guess, in which they provided information to the board about our finances," Carter added, in a reference to the former Becoats administration. "We have a C.F.O. now, a superintendent that are hell-bent on giving the community what it wants to see around our budget."
But Carter cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about Durham's spending based simply on a financials comparison to like-sized districts other than Durham.
"That is the only way they are peers, is in size. They are very different demographics, they're very different especially in racial make-up, but they're also different in economic makeup. And all that matters I think, because those things are linked to student achievement patterns," Carter said.
While noting that the comparative analysis showed DPS has "some areas within system-wide support that are definite flag areas for potential reductions in spending," Carter cautioned that school support services touching students are commingled at times with what appears to be central office spending.
"For twelve years since I've been on the board, [administrative spending has] been an issue. It is a favorite complaint of the community and it is one that we need to safeguard against, for sure."
"Also within this system wide support, there's a lot of student support services that are part of that and, you know, I'll defend those. I think we need it," Carter cautioned. "Our students need additional wrap around services that are provided through that category of spending." She cited instructional facilitators and teacher mentors -- the latter she argued being crucial in a district where over half of teachers are newly-licensed members of the profession -- as two roles that might be commingled in what appears to be central administrative spending.
"But you see things like warehouse and so you want to say, well, what is this exactly. We do have a million dollars more in warehouse spending than we do our next highest of those three," the school board chair noted. "And it's hard to think, well, you know our minority student population and our low income student population, what does it have to do with the warehouse. And so that's what we're asking them."
Asked about Durham's transportation budget being twice that of Johnston County, despite Durham being almost one-third Johnston's land-mass, Carter cited different policy choices in the counties.
"We transport children from one end of the county to the other if that's the school they want to go to. And we do that because we have a value on equity of access," Carter said.
"We lambast charter schools for doing, for limiting access through transportation. I think it's a Durham value that we maintain equity of access to what some people consider to be our best schools," Carted added, noting that nodes-based transportation could appear again as a topic in this year's budget crunch.
She added that other counties often made their bus-drivers part-time workers (thus, not eligible for costly benefits) or required bus drivers to also serve as teaching assistants, while DPS has separate staff for those roles; she also noted the state's high ranking of DPS for transportation efficiency.
Carter noted that the board had signed off on cuts to DPS office positions last year, and expected to see more reductions in support roles this year. But she added that DPS faces a "very competitive situation" on teacher pay that she felt Johnston, Cabarrus and Gaston County don't face -- a likely reference to Wake and Chapel Hill/Carrboro's presence.
"I don't believe that we can improve student achievement with less resources. I believe that resources matter," Carter said. "And now our fundamental question is, are we targeting those resources in the most effective and efficient ways."
Carter also raised a caution about the decreased racial integration of DPS, where white attendance has been flagging and a majority-minority system exists, and worried any erosion of public confidence in schools could heighten that trend.
"it worries me that since I've been on the board, I've seen an increase in the segregation in our schools by race and by class. And so not only are we seeing an increase in the number of poor students that we're serving, we're seeing an increase in the concentration of poor students in our schools," Carter said.
"I just think public schools are the place people come together, should come together, can come together have in the past, in our best times," Carter said. "And that's where we ride the bus together and sit by each other on the bleachers and eat lunch with one another and play on the playground together and learn to love one another, frankly. And if we're not doing that our public schools, I don't know where it's going to happen."
Carter noted that DPS' racial and economic imbalance didn't come from attendance zone lines -- all DPS school zones reflected the diversity of the community within plus-or-minus 15% when drawn, she said, noting that families opting out to private and charter schools drove the difference, and the importance of efforts like parental organizing at EK Powe to bring higher-resources students back into the school.
We asked Carter about Charlotte-Mecklenburg's ability to achieve better test results than Durham despite having very high levels of poverty and similar racial demographics.
"One thing I know that I've heard is that they have a stronger investment in preschool," Carter said; she stated that while she was not sure of this, she suspected that Charlotte might "use more of their Title I money for preschool than we do."
"I've never been a huge fan of moving more of our Title I money into preschool but I would certainly be open to exploring that more. I feel like we have so many needs within the K-12 system that. It's hard to divert any of that. It's like robbing Peter to pay Paul in a way," Carter said.
"I don't know this for a fact either, Kevin, but I'm guessing that maybe Charlotte doesn't have as many of their African-American students in schools with such a high concentration of other minority students. I need to look at that data," Carter said. "But I'm guessing that the percentage of our African-American and Latino students who are in school with other African-American and Latino students is higher than it is in Charlotte, and then we get back to this double burden."