Steven Unruhe | Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County | Indy Week

Elections » Candidate Questionnaires - Durham County

Steven Unruhe

Durham Public Schools Board of Education


DPS Board of Education Questionnaire
Name as it appears on the ballot: Steven Unruhe
Campaign website:
Occupation and employer: retired teacher, DPS
Spouse: Jennifer McGovern
Occupation & employer: selfemployed tutor
Years in Durham: 34
Phone number: 9194957918

1. What are the most important issues facing Durham County Public Schools? If elected, what
will be your top priorities?

All school systems today face numerous challenges, and a school board must be prepared to work
on multiple issues simultaneously. Durham, in particular, is confronted by the effects of poverty
and its disproportionate impact on children of color.

Still, in the end, education comes down to the relationship between teachers and students. I
intend to pay special attention to three inter‐related issues:

● attracting and keeping good teachers by addressing issues of non‐instructional time
demands and the quality of support provided by DPS
● fair and comprehensive assessment ‐ finding ways to effectively measure the many
different things we ask teachers and schools to do. This must encompass appropriate
academic growth for every child, whether they are struggling to read, learning English as
a second language, are part of our Exceptional Children’s program, or are academically
gifted. It must also include physical education and experiences in the arts, and the social
skills that lay the groundwork for academic success.
● careful examination of the DPS budget and administration to ensure that it is weighted
towards support of instruction. Currently accountability in DPS is top‐down; I want to see
this flipped so that principals are accountable to teachers and staff, and central office
personnel are accountable to schools.

2. What is there in your public record or other experience that demonstrates your ability to be
an effective leader? Please be specific about your public and community service background.
I have been actively committed to public schools in Durham for three decades. I have been both a
vocal defender of Durham Public Schools and a strong advocate for better schools for all of our

I moved to Durham for love to marry Jennifer McGovern. We have raised two daughters who both
graduated from Durham Public Schools ‐ Molly now lives in San Antonio where she is married, mother of one son and finishing law school, and Katie is also married, lives in Durham and
teaches at Northern High.

I worked as a bread baker at Ninth Street Bakery while pursuing certification in mathematics
education at North Carolina Central University. I began my career at Northern in 1986 and helped
to open Riverside in 1991. I taught every level of math and computer science, and my journalism
staffs won numerous state and national awards. I retired this past July.

I received the Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics Teaching in 1997. I received a
Lifetime Achievement Award from the Journalism Education Association in November, 2015. I
was a National Board Certified Teacher. I served as chair of both the Northern and Riverside
school improvement teams, and twice chaired principal search committees.

Beyond the classroom, I served two terms as president of the Durham Association of Educators,
playing a lead role in the merger of the city and county organizations in advance of the merger of
the two school systems. I was co‐leader for Durham in the national Leadership in Urban
Mathematics Reform program. I served two terms on the Superintendent’s Budget Advisory
Committee and was a member of the district High School Reform committee. I was also president
of the Durham Toxic Action Coalition in the early 1980’s, and co‐authored a paper documenting
racial discrimination in Wilson, NC, for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. I currently serve on the
allocation committee of the Durham Partnership for Children.

3. How do you define yourself politically, and how does your political philosophy show itself in
your past achievements and present campaign platform?

I define myself as “conservative left.” Conservative, in that I gravitate toward practical
solutions to problems and that I seek out common ground on issues. I believe that
government can be effective when we engage in specific, targeted actions. Left, in that I am
strongly committed to addressing the effects of poverty and racism in our community. I
believe everyone is responsible for their own decisions; all of us are responsible for
working alongside those who are seeking a better life.

4. Identify a principled stand you might be willing to take if elected that you suspect might
cost you some popularity points with voters.

I don’t think of an election as a popularity contest. I am running for the school board, not
American Idol. I believe as long as the community perceives officials to be thoughtful and
fair, there is a high tolerance for disagreement. I like to think that I have demonstrated a
willingness to take a strong stand on issues that I believe to be important, such as
advocating for the merger of the school system while serving as president of the
then‐county teachers association. I am not going to speculate on future decisions other
than to express full confidence that I will take more than one position with which some in
the community will disagree.

5. The INDY’s mission is to help build a just community in the Triangle. How would your
election to office help further that goal?

A strong public education system, in and of itself, is a tremendous investment in building a
just community. Our job is to provide opportunity ‐ for poor children to escape poverty, for
children of color to overcome the profound effects of racial discrimination, for children of
all sexual orientations to learn to live together, for immigrants to enter fully into our
society. For all of our shortcomings, public schools remain the most diverse setting in the
lives of most Americans.

To be concrete, I plan to be an active leader in the current push by the school board for
universal, high‐quality pre‐Kindergarten programs ‐ we need for all of our children to be
prepared for the start of school. I plan to advocate for effective literacy programs at every
level ‐ children who struggle with reading will not be successful in any other part of school.
I will advocate for an expansion of our bilingual services ‐ more bilingual teachers so that
students can learn English and subject content together more effectively, and more
bilingual counselors to support our large Spanish‐speaking population. I am proud of the
work of DPS in supporting students of all sexual orientations and will continue to support
these efforts.

6. A report released last year found that while 51 percent of DPS students were
African American, these students comprised nearly 73 percent of school suspensions. What, if
anything, do you believe the Board of Education should do to address this disparity?

This is a critical issue in our community. I dedicated a column to the subject last fall:
“Troubled by the Troubled.”‐news/dn‐opinion/articl

Over the course of my teaching career, I saw significant changes in school discipline. Thirty
years ago students could be, and were, suspended quickly and arbitrarily by school
administrators. Moreover, many students, especially African‐American students, were
routinely “counseled” to drop out of school.

I believe we have made much progress in DPS. Yet, we still have far to go, especially with
regard to addressing racial disparities in how discipline is administered. At the NC Safe,
Fair and Equitable Schools Conference, organized by the Youth Justice Project at North
Carolina Central last month, Duke Law professor Jane Wettach reviewed these statistics
state‐wide and compared North Carolina to other parts of the country, documenting clearly
the continuing pattern of discrimination.

Durham, unfortunately, shares a similar statistical profile to the rest of the state. This can
be seen in the work of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA in conjunction with Legal Aid of
North Carolina as part of their lawsuit against DPS.

In my own work as a journalism teacher at Riverside High, my staff would conduct
experiments (such as sending groups of students into the hallways without a pass to see
who would be stopped) that confirmed discrimination against black males. Indeed, among
students it was routine knowledge that teachers and administrators were much more likely
to stop a minority student, especially males, than a white student.

I believe the work of the DPS discipline committee has been a good first step. It will be
helpful to move towards a common set of standards in all of the schools, to make
distinctions between types of infractions, to separate elementary from upper grades in
policies, and to facilitate conversation among school leaders, parents and community

The next step will be to provide high‐quality alternatives to suspension. It is critical that
educators are able to maintain discipline in classrooms and hallways. All of our students
must feel safe, every day. Students who disrupt school need to be moved to environments
where both their social and academic needs are addressed. Other students must be able to
attend a stable, orderly classroom. It is worth noting that the correlation between poverty
and disruptive behavior creates a reality in which it is the education of other poor students
that is most harmed by discipline issues.

The true causes of school discipline problems are frequently larger than the school itself.
African‐American and Latino children are disproportionately affected by poverty, drugs,
families stressed by unemployment and lack of health care, and too few jobs or recreational
opportunities for teenagers. At the Youth Justice Project conference, Superintendent Bert
L’Homme quoted Marian Wright Edelman on the “cradle to prison” pipeline, and I believe
there is much truth in that description. Still, the challenge for schools is to address our part.
I believe the issue of alternatives to suspension is of such importance that it will require
support that reaches beyond the school system to include health and social services, public
safety and the county commission (who, in the end, must provide sufficient funding for
these alternatives). We have a few models, such as Project Rebound, that seem to be
effective, but we lack the scale needed. DPS has taken steps to expand mental health
services into some schools, but again we lack the scale needed. In‐school suspension
programs can be helpful, but these too are not able to respond to the scale of the issue.

Teachers, school administrators and public safety officers working in schools will need
strong training for the new discipline policies to be effective on the ground where it counts.
Teachers also need training in effective ways to manage classrooms and alternative
instructional strategies. Parents and community members will need to continue to
advocate for support of alternatives to suspension, and for schools that are safe for all

I strongly believe we can do better in Durham for all of our students.

7. The Durham Public Schools Code of Conduct is currently under review. What should the
goal of this review be? If revisions are made, what would you most like to see changed, and
how do you believe this would affect students?

Please see my response to question 6.

8. As a leader of a school system with more than 33,000 students, how do you propose to
improve retention rates as well as the individual student experience?

DPS has made great progress in student graduation. Few people outside of education
appreciate the scale of work necessary to reach an 80 percent graduation rate. Especially in
the context of the cut‐backs in education funding in this state, this has been an achievement
worthy of respect and celebration.

The challenges to further progress are stark. Some of these include:
● literacy ‐ high school students reading at an elementary school level are not going to
graduate. Some of these students have moved through our system without adequate
services; many of these students are newcomers to Durham. Teaching reading to
older students is very expensive.
● immigration ‐ the fear of deportation is very real and very disruptive of children’s
lives. Just this week a Riverside High student was arrested by ICE as he left his home
to head to school. (The student had no criminal record, had an excellent academic
record, and held a job as well). Students fearing arrest will not attend school.
Moreover, the efforts to deny a college education to undocumented immigrants
creates a strong counter‐current to graduation efforts. We can, and do, serve all
students and go to great lengths to help students stay in school and attend college,
but our best efforts are limited by the larger environment.
● poverty ‐ the destructive effects of poverty on families create huge obstacles for
students. We can strengthen our high school options to include more staggered time
and part‐time possibilities, and we can strengthen our support for alternative
programs such as Achievement Academy to help students who have left school
recover and graduate.
● vocational training ‐ I am a strong advocate for job training that incorporates the
needed academic work to help a student reach graduation with skills that lead to
decent paying employment. Moving directly into the workforce from high school
does not preclude later college work. Indeed, students are often more successful in
college when it is tied to specific goals for job advancement or job change.

9. At the state level, there has been increased focus on charter schools and voucher programs,
which critics allege comes at the expense of traditional public schools. In your view, have these
nontraditional options affected Durham students positively or negatively? And in an age with
more and more educational choices, what should the school system do to encourage parents
to choose traditional public schools, if anything?

It should not be a surprise that entrepreneurial Durham, the home of food trucks and the
American Underground, would lead the state in the creation of charter schools. When
charter schools were first proposed, they were described as “laboratories” to explore
alternative approaches in education. I believed that they were, in fact, a smokescreen for
efforts to re‐segregate public schools. I continue to hold concerns about the lack of
diversity in many charter schools, and the data seem to be clear that charter schools
perform at the same level, or slightly below, public schools. At the same time, for parents,
charters offer another set of choices in location, schedule and curriculum that many find
attractive. Our challenge is to provide high quality education for all of Durham’s children.
Charter schools need to be part of this effort, held to the same level of accountability as
Durham Public Schools. I intend to work with our county commissioners to assess charter
schools using the same standards that we develop for DPS. Our primary responsibility is to
make every Durham school a good school, and to build the confidence of the community in
the quality of all of our schools.

10. The Board of Education is now facing the prospect of as much as $16 million in budget
cuts for the 2016–17 school year. How do you believe the school board should address this
issue? Where do you believe cuts should be made? And do you believe the county commission
needs to allocate additional revenue to DPS?

DPS faces three budget challenges. The first, which is mostly out of our control, is that we
live in a state which refuses to come close to adequate funding of our educational system.
The second is to ensure that we as a system place a priority on funding of instruction. The
third is to win the community’s confidence in our fiscal responsibility.

The state of North Carolina ranks at the bottom of nearly every measure of support for
education. I don’t believe I need to document that for the Indy. I believe the efforts of many
people across the state did manage to push the state to finally, if inadequately, address
teacher pay (although I am not prepared to celebrate a “rise” to Number 46 in the country).

The basic support for education, however, ranging from textbooks to bus maintenance,
continues to be abysmal.

(Please see my article on “Why I Wear Red” for more details on the lack of state support:‐teacher‐explains‐why
Relative to the rest of our state, Durham has committed to a high level of support for our
schools. Measures change from year to year, but in general Durham is consistently in the
top five for county support. When measured against our capacity for support (i.e. taking
into account Durham’s overall economic status), we are still at number 21.

I believe we could do a better job of translating this funding to support of instruction.
School budgets are notoriously difficult to comprehend and so it is quite challenging to
evaluate how money is spent. I served for two years on the superintendent’s budget
advisory committee (under the previous superintendent) and was very frustrated by the
lack of quality information.

It appears that DPS spends quite a bit more for central office administration than
comparable districts, and it is this issue that I am committed to address. Two examples will
be our spending on testing and our spending on public relations. I will be pushing for a
close examination of these budgets, with a goal of moving funds towards the basics of
literacy instruction and smaller class sizes in elementary schools.

I believe that Superintendent L’Homme and his financial team are much more willing than
previous administrations to provide data and transparent analysis. It will take a school
board willing to dig into the details of the budget ‐ and this will be a huge task ‐ to move
DPS in a more effective direction.

Our third challenge is closely tied to this budget review. DPS lost the confidence of our
county commissioners, and much of the public, through poor fiscal management under Dr.
Becoats. I have been encouraging the board to work with commissioners to develop a
cooperative budget process that would set priorities (e.g. literacy instruction) and goals
(e.g. meeting “expected growth” in every elementary school) together. I believe such a
process is the only way to build long‐term support for school financial needs.

The simple fact is that Durham taxpayers will increasingly need to step into the educational
void created by our state legislature. Just to maintain our current levels of funding will
require a serious commitment from the county. To move forward in the important areas of pre‐Kindergarten education and teacher pay will take community‐wide resolve, and it will be up to the school board to start by building confidence in our fiscal management.

Add a comment