Matt Sears—DPS Board of Education, District 2 | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Matt Sears—DPS Board of Education, District 2



Name as it appears on the ballot: Matt Sears
Campaign website:
Phone number: 919-389-1867
Years lived in Durham County: 13

1. What do you believe are the most important issues facing the Board of Education? What are your top three priorities in addressing these issues?

Our students deserve very much to be performing better than 95th of 115 districts. You have my word that I will hold the superintendent and his team accountable for the following questions:

1. Are more and more students reading at grade level?  In the short term: is our improvement outpacing our peers?  We are currently around 95th in terms of performance...are we getting better? Long term: are we reaching the 70%, 80%, 90%, 100% goals that we really want for the children in our community?
2. Do Teacher Working Conditions and 360 degree assessments show that we are trending toward that notion of “53 great leaders for 53 schools?”
3. Is our teacher retention rate improving?

2. What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be an effective Board of Education member? This might include career or community service; be specific about its relevance to this office.

Please see my resume posted to my website. In addition to a long and varied career in public education, from teaching math and computer science at Hillside High and Hillside New Tech in Durham Public Schools, to consulting with schools across NC, providing math coaching to charter schools in Newark and Detroit, and serving as the Director of Educational Programs for the Duke University Talent Identification Program (Duke TIP). I am a graduate of Durham’s Neighborhood College and have served on and advised several boards.

3. If you are challenging an incumbent, what decisions has the incumbent made that you most disagree with? If you are an incumbent, what in your record and experience do you believe entitles you to another term?

I am an incumbent. I am most proud of my record of challenging the DPS status quo that has produced unacceptable outcomes for students over the last 25 years despite the amazing work of teachers and some school leaders.  In Board meetings and in the community, you can view a consistent pattern of my demanding higher quality school leaders, better and more transparent information, and accountability for senior leadership and their decisions, particularly financial decisions.  I am the only Board member who has each year asked and verified that evaluations have been performed for senior leadership and all principals. And, while it gave me not pleasure to do so, in the winter of 2016-2017, our superintendent gave an unacceptable (in my opinion) update on the goals set for him by the Board, to which I felt it necessary to publicly push hard for a better and more thorough review of those goals by the superintendent.  I also pushed extremely hard for a full, public search for our superintendent in 2017.

4. Research, including a new report from the NC Justice Center, suggests that North Carolina’s schools are becoming more segregated by race and economic status. What do you think is driving this trend, and do you think this is an issue DPS needs to address? Please explain your answer.

The bill in 2011 to lift the cap of the number of charters schools has been devastating to public education.  Because communities can now pop up charters schools on a whim, we are seeing many (but not all) charters not be “petri dishes of innovation” (and I would argue that few were before 2011 as was the original intent of charter legislation) but rather places of institutionalized racism in our community—places for parents running from neighborhood schools that don’t match parents’ ideas of what is best for their child, and what’s best for their child is not to be around poor kids and large numbers of kids of color.

5. What effects do you believe the popularity of charter schools is having on the school system? Is it exacerbating segregation or draining resources from neighborhood schools, as some critics contend?

See question 4.

6. In the wake of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, what do you think should be done to make schools safer? Do you see preventing such shootings as a “school safety” issue?

School shootings are horrific, but they are also rare. Our schools are relatively safe. I support investing in mental health for our students, not the $3 million DPS is about to spend to put another set of doors at a dozen or so schools. I support and advocate for common sense gun legislation.

7. In a similar vein, do you support the placement of school resource officers in Durham schools? If so, what do you think their role should be? If not, what do you propose as an alternative?

I do not want armed officers in our schools and I worry that they often have too much access to student data. I would like to see our schools create “Dean of Student” positions that are well-trained on de-escalation and emergency response and to have our armed officers outside of the building for serious emergencies only.

8. On the most recent Durham City and County Resident Survey, respondents rated DPS poorly in terms of community engagement, quality of education, budget management, transparency, and quality of leadership. Do you think this is a fair assessment? Why or why not? What do you think should be done to improve the system's image?

Yes and no.

Yes: (but it’s somewhat justified) We are not a great “listening,” transparent district because that is not the way our educators have been trained and it has not been the expectation for years. We want our educators to be good at that—educating! But with increased competition from charters and the influx of business practices in education, we also want them to be great at customer service

No: Education is one of the areas of our society where everyone had their own experience, and thus have an informed opinion about education, which may not be true for healthcare professionals, transportation services, etc. Thus, I think the data is skewed too far towards the negative because not everyone’s ideas about education are always valued in the way they want by the professionals they encounter in our district.

9. According to the most recent data, DPS’s four-year graduation rate is 81.4 percent, which is significantly lower than other Triangle counties’ graduation rates, as well as the state average. To what do you attribute this? And what steps can DPS take to increase its four-year graduation rate?

There are too many factors at play to answer this question effectively, not to mention that post-secondary success, while tied to graduation rate, is just as important to me. I will continue to push our district leadership on success for all students, including graduation and post-secondary success by examining data like the National Student Clearinghouse data.

10. Three-quarters of DPS students are black or Hispanic, yet students of color are trailing their white peers in grade-level proficiency. Why isn’t DPS doing a better job of reaching students of color? What should be done to close this achievement gap?

See question 1. To make significant progress on this gap we need to focus on reading achievement, school leadership, and teacher retention. Our efforts towards universal will also help.

11. What do you think the system could do to keep down suspension rates in Durham County schools?

When the US Dept of Ed’s Office of Civil Rights complaint emerged in 2014, I joined the board in time for Dr. Jacob Vigdor’s report that showed that within DPS schools, suspensions were given out fairly evenly in terms of offense = consequence. There were two challenges: 1. Rates of suspension between schools was extremely different, with some schools suspending many and others none. And 2. that the suspension data of then and today does not get into the culture of a school’s decision making around what referrals rise up to consequences and that there may be disparities in those decisions.

All that said, I see our most recent data as just one data point and too early to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of programs like Capturing Kids Hearts.

I feel from my experience in DPS that I know that principal training is needed to norm our district to be consistent from school to school, from consequence to consequence. I do not think our principals know how to do this through their certification programs and that it is has not been a focus of their district support. Further, teachers need training on everything from de-escalation to racial equity to restorative justice to keep as much control of discipline in their classrooms.

In this past year’s data I see a handful of principals that are armed with too few tools to overcome the default tool of suspension.

12. Identify and explain one principled stand you would be willing to take if elected that you suspect might cost you some points with voters.

Redistricting. We must be responsible to the communities that support our neighborhoods and the overcrowding of schools in south Durham paired with magnet programs that are inaccessible because of walk zones or numbers of applicants, mean that we must respond by redistricting neighborhoods into schools that have capacity and/or designing magnet programs to fill underutilized spaces. This WILL be unpopular. There will surely be citizens that will relate a new assignment zone to property values rather than the good of the entire community. I am promising to push for a redistricting plan during my second 4-year term.

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