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Cracks in the System

What message will black opposition to a Durham school bond deliver?

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In southwestern Durham, 900 elementary school students attend classes in mobile trailers, eating lunch in shifts that begin at 10 a.m. because the cafeterias in their schools were not designed to hold a parking-lot full of "overflow" students.

At Rogers-Herr Middle School just south of downtown, where students attend school year-round, brick walkways are crumbling and the PTA has had to raise money to buy fans because most classrooms lack air conditioning.

So when voters are asked on Nov. 6 to authorize $52 million in bond funds for the Durham Public Schools to update and repair aging buildings, add classroom space and construct a new elementary school, it seems like a simple question with a "yes" answer.

Except that a sizable portion of the city's African-American leadership is organizing against the bond. The Durham chapter of the NAACP and the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People--the city's most powerful black organization--have come out against the school portion of the bond referendum because they say the system doesn't do enough for black students. The Durham Committee has organized against school bonds before; this will be the first that the local NAACP has officially opposed.

"Do all children deserve the best we can give them? Have some children been getting the best that all deserve?" Lavonia Allison, chair of the Durham Committee and one of the most vocal opponents of the school bond, asked in one of the many op-ed articles she has authored on the topic. "The answers to many of these inquiries have precipitated the feelings of dissatisfaction, disbelief, distrust and non-support of the school bond referendum as presently proposed."

The threat to defeat the bond has widened the divide that's been slowly but steadily growing between the Durham schools and the city's black communities. Opponents have seized on the bond question as a public opportunity to send a message of no-confidence in the school system, its elected leaders and their appointed chief.

Lack of confidence has often been an issue in the rocky decade since the predominantly black city schools merged with the predominantly white county schools. But in recent years--particularly since Superintendent Ann Denlinger, who is white, was hired in 1997--several key personnel decisions and dismal data on black student achievement have slowly driven the wedge deeper.

Squabbling on the school board--whose four white and three black members often vote along racial lines--combined with Denlinger's removal of a popular black principal earlier this year, have only increased tensions. This past spring, parents, alumni and black leaders lobbied against Denlinger's proposal to move Principal Richard Hicks out of Hillside High School, the alma mater of many prominent black Durhamites. When Denlinger sought a board vote to hire a new principal for Hillside, the three black board members refused to go into the closed session to discuss it.

Several other controversial school issues have resulted in split board votes--a symptom of what Deborah Giles, chair of the Durham Committee's political sub-committee, calls "a tyranny of the majority."

As a result, "the bond is being used by leaders within the black community as an opportunity to make a statement about the school system," says the Rev. Carl Kenney, a black pastor and community leader who has used his regular newspaper column to air both sides of the issue. "I'm hearing a lot of people say this is the only way to make a difference."

To illustrate the need for a difference, bond opponents point to the disproportionate numbers of black students repeating grades, being suspended, dropping out and being placed in low-performance classes--all issues cited in a 1998 investigation by the federal Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights. A more recently concluded study by The News & Observer that tracked Durham students entering ninth grade in the fall of 1994, found that 70 percent of black male students failed to graduate four years later.

School officials dispute those numbers, putting the figure at 52 percent. But even the lower estimate is still too high, says the Rev. Curtis Gatewood, the local NAACP president. "That many children don't fail," Gatewood says. "We fail the children."

On the facilities front, African-American leaders argue that the school system's list of renovations and additions omits some glaring needs, most notably at C.C. Spaulding and W.G. Pearson elementary schools, two of the oldest former city schools. Bond opponents call foul on spending money to build new buildings to accommodate growth in the suburbs when inner-city schools need upgrading.

The bond package includes $12 million for a new 650-student elementary school to ease crowding in Southwest Durham. Of the 11 existing schools in the bond, five (including Rogers-Herr, slated for $12 million in major improvements) are in the former city district.

"The priorities you all have selected are not fair, they're not just and they're not right," Allison told the school board at an Oct. 11 meeting.

Allison has called for more money for Spaulding and Pearson, among other former city schools, while Gatewood emphasizes the need to beef up personnel and school programs to help black students. They and other black leaders claim they haven't been able to get those concerns across to board members and the superintendent through regular channels, so they've taken a principled stand against the bond.

To accusations that the strategy hurts children, bond opponents reply that the current system is already hurting black children by compromising their education.

"It's getting to the point where we don't have anything else to lose," Gatewood says.

According to Durham school system figures, the percentage of African-American students in grades 3 through 8 who can read at or above grade level has risen 12 points since 1997 to 61.5 percent, while the number of African-American students dropping out has fallen from 302 last year to 191 this year.

In a statement released to counter negative publicity about the bond, Superintendent Denlinger detailed these and other statistics to demonstrate the school system's commitment to closing the achievement gap between black and white students, which she says has "shrunk" nearly 29 points since 1997.

School officials also tout recent results of the state's "ABCs" school-evaluation program. Released Oct. 4, the figures show that students at 29 of the district's 44 schools achieved their highest overall scores ever in reading, writing and math last year, earning the district its first "school of excellence" and seven "schools of distinction" marks.

Duke University Vice President John Burness, co-chair of a bond promotions committee, echoes the theme of improvement. "The principals are strong. The kids are doing well. The teachers are great. But the facilities are not up to the standards of what's needed in the 21st century," he says. "At the end of the day, you've got to look at the bottom line and the bottom line is that the students are doing better."

Such arguments are one reason why support for the school bond can be found among both blacks and whites in Durham. A long list of endorsements includes prominent black educators, the teachers association, the school PTA Council, the Inter-Neighborhood Council, the Chamber of Commerce and three of the city's four leading PACs--the conservative Friends of Durham and Durham Voters Alliance, and the liberal People's Alliance.

But the most visible leaders of the pro-bond forces are members of Durham's predominantly white business establishment and its organizations--the Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Chamber, to name a few. Funded by nearly $20,000 from donors that include the Home Builders Association of Durham & Orange Counties and other corporate entities, a bond promotion committee led by Burness and Durham Technical Community College President Phail Wynn has taken its "Yes 5!" show on the road all over the county this fall, putting on PowerPoint presentations for civic and neighborhood groups and advertising in local media. (In addition to the school bond, four other bond questions are on the ballot. But the school bond is the largest--70 cents on each dollar of the total $74.6 million package.)

In their public-relations arsenal, bond supporters carry rising test scores, falling dropout rates and lists of improvements already made at former city schools.

They also have spokesmen like Linzie Atkins, who has been widely quoted in the daily newspapers. A parent of a student at Lakewood Elementary, which is in the bond package, Atkins has spoken as a member of the clergy, a taxpayer and a member of the black community in letters to the editor he's written appealing to black leaders to cease their opposition for the sake of "unity." The letters don't mention that he's also vice president for education at the Durham Chamber of Commerce--a leading backer of the bond.

Such orchestration has underscored the feeling of racial divide for people like Gatewood, who calls the pro-bond campaign "propaganda." He chuckles ironically when he notes that even a call to the local time and weather phone line turns up a recording urging him to vote for the bond packages.

Caught in the middle of the raging rhetoric are parents like Bill Mills. At a community forum last spring, the Githens Middle School parent threatened to mobilize the school's site-based decision-making committee against the bond because Githens was omitted from the list. This month, however, the Githens group unanimously endorsed the bond.

"Anytime we have an opportunity to generate more resources for our children we have to jump on it," says Mills, who has one child at Githens and two at Southwest Elementary where there are many trailers. "I think it's foolhardy for people to oppose the bond for reasons that don't have much to do with education."

Rogers-Herr PTA President David Fitts--whose school is slated to receive the largest chunk of bond funds of any single school--says he hopes this round of bond money is the first of many that will benefit all schools eventually.

"I'm not into sending messages to anybody. I'm interested in educating our children," Fitts says. "Everyone has a need. Everyone has a case. We're not making a political statement."

Those sentiments are echoed by nationally respected black educator and Durham native Leroy Walker. In a Sept. 8 column in the Herald-Sun urging support for all the bonds, Walker wrote that defeating them would "send a signal to our children and their teachers, who are working so hard to improve student achievement, that our community is turning its back on them."

Many bond supporters--school board Chairwoman Kathryn Meyers included--concede that the public schools could be doing more to close the achievement gap and address the needs of minority students. But they argue that rejecting the bond referendum is not the way to accomplish that goal.

"My analysis of the opposition is that it has to do with control and not much to do with children," says Meyers, who suggests unseating incumbent school board members next year as a more effective message-delivery system. "And whether the Durham Committee is going to control the Durham Public Schools is a quick conversation in my mind."

Such perceptions have been bolstered by the fact that high-profile black leaders such as Allison and Gatewood--neither of whom are strangers to controversy--have led the charge for bond opponents. A number of public confrontations between white and black leaders, particularly Allison, have allowed school officials to downplay criticisms by insisting that they stem from grudges against the school system and white school leaders.

One widely publicized quarrel erupted between Allison and school board member Phillis Scott. It began with Allison calling Scott "deranged" and ended with Scott accusing Allison of injuring her in a physical tussle. Just last month, the school board attorney wrote Allison a stern letter restricting her access to school buildings after she allegedly harassed central office staff members and disrupted activities at several schools.

But black leaders say focusing on the confrontational style of communication rather than the message itself obscures the reasons why many African Americans are opposing the bond.

"Unfortunately, when you really stand up for what you believe in, regardless of what's perceived to be consensus, you are frowned upon," says Gatewood, the NAACP leader, who himself was ejected from a school board meeting last year during a protest over black dropout rates. "We can see through the smokescreen, so we are considered trouble in this town."

Bond opponents say school officials' failure to consider their concerns has left them no choice but to take strong action.

"This particular superintendent just really doesn't listen," says Deborah Giles, of the Durham Committee. "She not only doesn't listen, she doesn't feel like she has to listen because she's got four votes for whatever she does."

Others go even further, defining the debate over the school bond as a conflict between two completely different agendas. Asked how he would spend $52 million to improve schools, Gatewood ticks off this list: hire educators and central office staff who specialize in African-American children's needs; add dropout prevention specialists; eliminate alternative schools that are a dumping ground for black students.

Bond supporters point out that no one showed up at public hearings to suggest changes to the priority list. But opponents counter that a lack of public notice kept them from participating.

It's that sense of being left out of the process, black leaders say, that has fueled anti-bond sentiment among African Americans. "It's about taxation without representation," says Kenney, the minister and newspaper columnist who says he sympathizes with both sides of the issue even though he'll probably vote for the bond. "It's about people saying, Don't ask us to give money for schools when we don't have a voice.'"

Even black leaders who've been campaigning for the bond are hoping that the debate over its passage will ultimately lead to a school system that's more responsive to concerns raised by opponents.

"I support the bond," school board member Michael Page, a minister who is serving his first term on the school board, told an NAACP audience recently. "However, I am sensitive to the issues you all have been raising. There are ongoing problems at the Durham Public Schools that the board of education might want to listen to." EndBlock

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