Election 2016: Brenda Howerton, "You have to learn to work at consensus."

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Note: Bull City Rising interviewed eight of the 10 county commission candidates running in the March primary. (Fred Foster Jr. did tell us he was out of town at a conference, but then did not respond to a subsequent message requesting an interview; Glyndola Massenburg-Beasley did not respond to emails regarding an interview.)

We are posting summary stories and full audio for each candidate. 

Here's what you need to know before you vote:

  • Ten Democratic candidates are running in the March primary for five seats on the Durham County Commission. The top five candidates will move on to the general election in November.
  • Early voting for county, state and federal offices (except U.S. House) starts Thursday, March 3; Election Day is Tuesday, March 15. Because of a federal ruling regarding the unconstitutionality of congressional maps, the U.S. House election, under new districting, is scheduled for June.

When Brenda Howerton was elected to the county commission eight years ago, her community connections were deep but her government experience had been limited to the Soil and Water Conservation Board

Now Howerton, who is running for her third term as commissioner, has accumulated experience on at least a dozen boards and commissions. 

“We are elected as individuals, but then you have to learn to govern,” says Howerton, who is vice-chair of the commission. “You have to be willing to work at getting consensus, and know that you’re there for the good of the community. It doesn’t mean we always agree on everything, but we’ve been able to respect our different views.”

In her first term, she says “I looked at way we were doing business. We didn’t have a strategic plan. I couldn’t understand why that wasn’t in place. After conversations with my colleagues and the county manager, we got one in place. It gives us a way to look at how we’re measuring results.”

As commissioner, Howerton also has influence over the local portion of public school funding. More than a third of the county budget goes to the public school system. She says the imbalance between central office and direct classroom spending — and the achievement gap between white and minority students “is very disturbing.”

“I had a conversation this weekend with a teacher and i asked her ‘What is needed to pull up our children?’” Howerton says. “She said one of the things is 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 says she recommended to county manager that a mediator may be necessary, “so we can create some real results. We have to be able to talk.”

“I wasn’t involved in the political process during the merger,” she says, “so this is the first time I’ve seen this kind of relationship get o this point. I don’t understand it at all. You can have a conversation with anybody. They may not agree, but you need to respect their views and come to middle of road.”

Howerton, who is on the Durham Crime Cabinet and other criminal justice boards, calls the recent death of an inmate at the Durham County jail, “a concern for me,” and that the commission is waiting for the results of the sheriff’s investigation. But, Howerton says, with the help of the North Carolina Association of Counties, she’ll lobby the legislature to  change state laws that allow 16- and 17-year-old to be placed in adult jails. being put in our jails. North Carolina and New York are the only two states that treat that age group as adults in the criminal justice system.

A lack of job prospects and education, coupled with generational poverty, particularly in African-American neighborhoods, have contributed to crime — and by extension, to problems at the jail.

“We don’t need children being in the streets without working,” Howerton says. “We need to create as many opportunities as possible for our young people to be working, particularly middle skill jobs.”

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 says, also should offer certifications and training specific to these jobs. 

“What are other community colleges doing that we aren’t?” says Howerton, who sits on the Durham Tech board of trustees. For example, Wake Tech has an aeronautics program. “Wake has a lot of things that I wish we had in Durham. But it’s a bigger county and has more resources. We have to continue to be innovative and see what we can do.”


L'Homme, DPS on budget scrutiny: past budgets should be assessed in context; "fresh look" at spending to come

Ed. note: Durham Public Schools superintendent Bert L'Homme has provided the following response to BCR's recent "Scrutinizing our Schools" series. It is printed below in full and unedited. An accompanying document and spreadsheet from DPS are linked at the story's end. --KSD.

Bull City Rising has performed a public service in delving into and asking questions about our spending priorities in Durham Public Schools. In the last few years DPS has been able to produce much more transparent and understandable budget information. That helps hold us accountable as a district not only for our finances but our impact on student achievement—and we welcome that accountability.

There are some areas in the reporting that miss important context, however. We want to highlight one particular example and also talk about one of the assumptions in the series: that DPS’s spending priorities have changed significantly in the last decade.



The basic facts in Scrutinizing our Schools: A Decade Later Spending and Enrollment Up, But Fewer Teachers are accurate but miss an important point: when other districts have had to reduce the teaching workforce in the face of state funding cuts, during the last ten years DPS has been able to mostly hold the line on maintaining teaching positions.

Comparing the state’s “Highlights of the North Carolina Public School Budget” documents from FY 2007-08 to FY 2014-15, we see that the state funded 85,575 teachers just prior to the Great Recession. Today, the state only funds 81,702 teachers—3,873 fewer, despite the fact that our public schools served 25,271 additional students. (None of these figures includes charter schools.)

Most school districts couldn’t make up the difference, but DPS came close. From FY 2007-08 to FY 2014-15, the number of federally and locally funded teachers in North Carolina increased, but not enough to offset the cuts in teaching positions. As a result, there were 3,110 fewer teachers in North Carolina school districts, a decline of 3.18 percent statewide. Durham Public Schools, on the other hand, was able to keep our number of teachers relatively level. In FY 2007-08 we had 2,368 teachers (coincidentally the same number we had in 2006, as BCR stated). In FY 2014-15, the 2,347 teachers serving our students represented only a 0.9 percent decline.

Continue reading "L'Homme, DPS on budget scrutiny: past budgets should be assessed in context; "fresh look" at spending to come" »

Scrutinizing our schools: A decade later, spending and enrollment up, but fewer teachers

This article was reported by and written with Alex Modestou.

One of the lingering questions for us at BCR after our week-ago series on Durham Public Schools performance and finances was how our analysis held up beyond the single 2014-15 point-in-time we analyzed.

So what happens when we look further back? DPS’ own Comprehensive Annual Financial Report sheds a bit more light on the picture.

In 2014-15, DPS spent more than $2,600 more per pupil -- a total of $110 million more than the district spent a decade before.

Once we control for the effects of inflation and increased charter outflows, we estimate that this translates to nearly $50 million in real (i.e., non-nominal) spending.


While there are about 2,300 more students in DPS in AY2015 than AY2006, however, the total instructional staff numbers are actually down -- with 21 fewer teachers in the just-concluded school year.

More students, fewer teachers, but a one-sixth increase in spending. We think that as DPS prepares to undertake a significant scrutiny of its budget, it’s more data suggesting that a very close look at administrative spending vs. classroom spending is needed.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: A decade later, spending and enrollment up, but fewer teachers" »

Scrutinizing our schools: Parting thoughts on why this matters, and an opportunity for optimism?

This is the last in a six-part series scrutinizing performance, spending and priorities in Durham Public Schools.

We’ve seen this week a set of data that’s hard to stomach.

Despite an extremely generous comparative level of local funding -- and total spending levels that are, on a per-pupil basis, at the top of those in peer counties -- Durham students’ academic performance lags other North Carolina counties, by numerous measures.

We’d argue that this is no less than an enormous risk factor for the future success and well-being of the community.

Look at all the attention paid in recent years to finding ways to saving Durham’s “disconnected youth,” the tranche of Durham’s youngest residents who are not connected to schools, jobs, civic structures, and the like -- and, therefore, those most likely to find connection in gangs or other antisocial outcome:

Or look at the names, faces and ages of those who have been arrested in so many of the shootings and murders plaguing our community in recent months: almost all were young men, often accused of crimes at an age where one would hope they would be in school, not the detention center.  

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: Parting thoughts on why this matters, and an opportunity for optimism?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: How does DPS allocate classroom and school resources?

This is the fifth in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: a closer look at teacher allocation and school leadership services, and a wrap-up to our series. Later today: we'll wrap up our scrutiny with some closing thoughts.

Over the last two days, we’ve seen that DPS’s position of financial strength seems unbalanced in its uses within the system.

For instance, comparatively little of the district’s extra spending on instructional programs goes to the use of regular classrooms, with alternative/special population programs and administrative costs taking a much greater cut. And, DPS’s administrative costs well outrank the three school systems closest to DPS in size.

Today’s we’re going to drill in further to an analysis of classroom and school-level instructional resources -- since most people seem to agree that teachers and principals are the most essential and consequential individuals in a school system, it’s crucial to understand where DPS is resourced at the individual school level.

In the context of the student achievement crisis discussed in the first post in this series, today we’ll explore the following questions:

  • Does DPS prioritize classroom teachers?
  • Do high-needs schools in DPS have more teachers?
  • Is teacher and principal compensation sufficient to attract and retain high quality educators and school leaders?

Although many external factors affect student learning, an adequately staffed force of high-quality professional teachers supported by strong school-based leaders is the foundation a school system needs to provide a sound education for all students.

In some ways, particularly around socioeconomic allocation of resources, DPS seems relatively well balanced.

Yet some of DPS’s other decisions -- on elementary vs. secondary school teaching resources, allocation of per-pupil local teacher funding at some high schools, and principal/assistant principal supplemental funding and staffing levels -- defy as easy an explanation and are worth further scrutiny.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: How does DPS allocate classroom and school resources?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?

This is the fourth in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers. Tomorrow: a closer look at teacher allocation and school leadership services, and a wrap-up to our series.

As we saw yesterday, Durham Public Schools (DPS) spends more per pupil than any of the other large urban districts in the state. Out of all 115 NC school districts, only Asheville, Chapel-Hill/Carrboro, and Dare County contribute more local dollars (per pupil) to public education.

Yet DPS’ leadership in spending isn’t matched by high or even acceptable performance outcomes, relative to large districts, peer districts, or low-SES/high-need districts.

This paradox presents the linchpin of the troubling data we’re trying to understand in looking at DPS:

  • With such a striking lag in performance, and such a glaring difference in white vs. minority performance, how can DPS be meeting its requirement to provide an equal educational opportunity for all?
  • And, if Durham is outspending its peers for poor results, where are we “spending in the wrong ways,” or where could taxpayer dollars go to create better outcomes?

In today’s installment of the series, we’re going to drill in further to the spending question to try to explain the significant gap in spending between DPS and its most similar North Carolina peer districts -- Cabarrus, Johnston, and Gaston.

While 77% of Durham’s spending surplus versus those three systems does go to what the NC DPI calls “instructional” services, comparatively little -- only about one in every four dollars in this category -- goes to regular classroom instruction.

Nearly the same one in four dollars goes towards spending on in-school resources like principals, non-instructional school support staff, and other functions. And, the remainder goes to exceptional children and alternative instructional programs -- two areas where DPS spends much more than its peers, despite having almost identically-sized EC student populations.

And as to administrative spending?  The hard truth is, if DPS cut its spending in these central office functions to the average level of its three peers, it could fully fund universal Pre-K -- or alternatively, could recapture every dollar “lost” to charter schools.

Remember that rabbit hole? It gets murkier, and a bit more disorienting, the deeper we get.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: Little of DPS' surplus spending goes to regular classrooms -- so where is it spent?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?

This is the third in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today:comparing DPS spending against other districts. Coming up tomorrow: a deeper dive into how Durham's spending compares with three close peers.

As we noted yesterday, Durham Public Schools trails many to most other North Carolina school systems in numerous standardized measures of performance almost any way we slice things -- by looking at the largest/most urbanized districts, or all systems, or isolated for demographic or income characteristics.

There’s another comparison that’s worth looking at: how much does Durham spend on its public schools, relative to our peers?  After all, given Durham’s bleeding-blue reputation and reality, it’s hard to imagine our community not being willing to pay any asked price for better schools.

The curious reality, though, is Durham’s last-place finish contrasts with the district spending significantly more local augmentation funding than any of its peers.

To me, the data that we’ll discuss over the next couple of days is hard to explain. (We’ve been trying to make sense of it ourselves.)  And it puts some of DPS’ challenges in a different, and important, context that we don’t always see.

For instance, many Durhamites have raised equity concerns over the amount of resources that leave public schools for charters.

And we concur that it’s a big figure, equating to more than $500 per pupil in 2014-15.

Yet DPS’ central administrative/system overhead costs far surpass the three NC large, urban districts closest to it in student population.  In fact, the difference in spending in this one category, per pupil, is greater than what Durham Public Schools loses per pupil to charters.

Ponder that for a moment. And then, welcome to the rabbit hole as we try to explain these numbers.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: How does Durham's school spending compare to other districts?" »

Scrutinizing our schools: DPS student achievement lags most NC districts

This is the second in a six-part series of articles scrutinizing Durham Public Schools performance and financial priorities. Today: evaluating DPS's academic performance relative to other NC school districts. Coming up tomorrow: comparing DPS spending against other districts.


First up: how does Durham’s academic performance compare against its peers?

The short answer isn’t comforting. If you’re white, the answer seems to be that you’ll do just fine -- if you’re not, you’re literally at the bottom of the pack.

Before we go there, let’s look first at the aggregate data.

With over 33,000 students, Durham is the eighth-largest school district in the state.  For a starting point, it’s useful to look at the ways in which DPS’ performance compares among the ten largest N.C. school districts.

Naturally, such an analysis depends on standardized test results from NC DPI. There’s plenty of reason to be worried about the testing-heavy regimes in school districts throughout the country, including in Durham, and some will argue this is a poor benchmark for learning achievement.

We’ve got a hunch this is not the method that DPS would choose to measure its performance by. In fact, based on the district’s response to the last round of test results, we’re pretty sure it isn’t.

Looking at school performance through a slightly different lens, the state uses complex statistical algorithms developed by SAS to measure growth for individual students and schools.  After N.C. DPI found 21 out of 53 DPS schools to be “low-performing” earlier this year, the district countered that 14 of these schools met the their yearly growth metrics, and that the “school performance grades do not accurately reflect the teaching and learning going on in each school.” (Of course, even among the schools that met or exceeded targeted growth from 2013-14 to 2014-15, half of them saw actual pass rates decline.)

There are good arguments on both sides of the question of school growth measures, and about standardized testing overall, but we think it’s worth stepping back and looking at the tests in a different light: what do they tell us about how Durham students perform relative to others in the state?

After all, the biases and failings in the test do not merely affect DPS students; they are also faced by students in every other North Carolina school. In this report, we want to see how DPS students perform relative to students in other districts.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: DPS student achievement lags most NC districts" »

Scrutinizing our schools: About BCR's week-long focus on Durham Public Schools performance, spending

Durham’s public schools often feature in the headlines and the editorials of our local papers. There’s a range of tropes that we hear frequently, and often without debate:

  • Charter schools, we are told, are draining funds from Durham Public Schools’ educational resources and impacting the quality of DPS’ education, while not having to offer the same services that public schools do;
  • An unfair conservative state regime seeking to destroy public education through encouraging charters and by a death-of-a-thousand budget cuts at the state level;
  • A perceived tension between the school board and Durham County on schools funding, with seeming annual debates and disagreements between the boards, culminating in some years with marches on the County Commission to fight for funding;
  • Scrutiny over discipline and suspension rates, with the district recently pledging to curtail out of school suspensions;
  • The demographics of DPS, sometimes used as an explainer in some folks eyes, an excuse in others;
  • The local and national focus on standardized testing, under attack and likely to see some reform in the post-NCLB era, yet still seen as crowding out classroom time and impacting learners.

Reasonable people may agree with some or even all of these tenets -- or disagree with them. Still, it hasn’t escaped my notice that all too often, we seem to spend more time in these meta-conversations around our schools than in asking perhaps a more important series of questions:

Setting aside the politics of debate, are our schools performing as well as we can expect?  Are we getting a reasonable level of assurance that DPS is spending money in ways that improve learning outcomes? Even given the number of students in charter schools and the high poverty rate of the district, how well does DPS do in comparison with districts that are relatively like it in size?

The answer, we find, is a mixed bag at best.

In this, the first of a multi-part series, we want to dive into the data behind the district.

Continue reading "Scrutinizing our schools: About BCR's week-long focus on Durham Public Schools performance, spending" »

A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data

Durham public school system officials released some negative but expected student test results on Thursday. They also backed away from a key achievement claim that they had made when announcing test scores on Wednesday. 

Preliminary results under a federal school assessment program showed that only seven Durham Public Schools met the federal government’s adequate yearly progress standard. 

These results, released Thursday for the recently concluded 2010-11 academic year, were down from 2009-10, when 14 of the district’s schools made AYP. 

That kind of dip wasn’t confined to Durham, though. The News & Observer reported Thursday that just 22 of the Wake school district’s 163 schools made adequate yearly progress. Last year, by comparison, 61 of 159 schools made progress under the standard. 

Why the drops? It’s certainly not that the students, teachers and schools in North Carolina, or in either of these two districts, got markedly poorer between 2009-10 and the school year that just ended. 

Instead, the major factor is probably something that made these kinds of results entirely foreseeable. The goals rose, and by significant margins. 

Continue reading "A bit of shine comes off Durham public school test data" »