Name as it appears on the ballot: Bettina Umstead

Age: 34

Party affiliation: Democrat (Nonpartisan Race)

Campaign website: 

Occupation & employer: Associate, The Equity Collaborative

Years lived in the area: 10

1. In 300 words or less, please give us—and our readers—your elevator pitch: Why are you running? Why should voters entrust you with this position? What are your priorities, and what would you want to see the school board do differently or better over the course of your term? 

I’m running for office because I know the power education has to transform the lives of Durham students. It is why I sought an appointment to the Board in 2016, re-election in 2018 and I’m asking for your vote again today. As the chair of the Board, I’ve demonstrated my ability to make challenging decisions that center what is best for our students. I bring a listening ear and a collaborative approach that works with other Board members, City and County officials and the community to advocate for what is best for young people. For the next four years, I pledge to continue to keep our students first through working to address academic and mental health needs, investing to recruit and retain great educators and advocating for funding for major renovations to create classroom spaces where students want to learn. As we move forward to a different stage in the pandemic, it’s time for our community to come together to create the wraparound support needs for students and families to thrive in our community.

2. Given the direction of the school district, would you say things are on the right course? If not, for what specific changes will you advocate if elected?

In 2018, a community group of 50 students, parents, educators and community leaders created the Durham Public Schools Strategic Plan with 5 main priorities accompanied by goals and strategies within each goal. Although the past two years of navigating the COVID-19 pandemic has shifted the way we approach our work, the Strategic Plan is still a grounding document for where our district needs to go. The impacts of the pandemic have only increased our need to focus on supporting the whole child, increasing academic achievement and recruiting and retaining outstanding educators. The school district can continue to improve our commitment to equity. Unfortunately, there are still racial and socio-economic disparities in our academic & discipline data. I worked on and voted to adopt the Racial & Educational Equity Policy for DPS. This policy outlines our priority areas for where we need to focus to move towards equity in DPS. We need to continue to deepen this work to ensure the policy is a part of our everyday practice.

3. What are the three main issues that you believe the Board of Education needs to address in the upcoming year?

 In the upcoming school year, we have to continue to address the mental health crisis with our students. The US Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control have alerted the country of the mental health crisis facing our children. We must work to address this challenge head on. This past year, I voted to add an additional 10 mental health counselors to our schools and through a partnership with the Durham Public Schools Foundation, we will be able to expand mental health services for students in the upcoming year. While expanding individual therapy options, we also must continue to implement whole school interventions teaching social-emotional skills curriculum to ensure students feel a sense of belonging inside of their schools and can practice skills like conflict resolution and a growth mindset.

The past two years have been extremely challenging for our students, families and educators. In the next year, we need to focus on increasing student achievement and recruiting and retaining amazing educators. I see both of these focus areas as vital as one impacts the other. For students to grow academically, we need great educators. We need to focus on increasing educator pay, create more pipelines that will bring educators to our District and work to make the job sustainable. By having strong educators who use culturally relevant teaching practices with a strong curriculum, our students can make academic growth.

In the upcoming year, the school board will begin to address our school facilities. We are in preliminary conversations regarding a school bond that will go to the ballot in November that will build new and make major renovations to many of our schools. This is important work to ensure our students and educators have the physical space needed to learn.

4. Describe something you think the school board should have prioritized differently in the current budget. Do you think the budget supports students from lower income families as well as from wealthy families? Does the budget meet the district’s infrastructure needs?

82.7% of DPS’ budget is allocated to the salaries and benefits of our educators – the people who make our mission of educating students possible. DPS can continue to examine school allocations to ensure that we are equitably allocating funds to support students who have additional needs. Currently, schools who qualify for Title 1, a designation for a higher student population who qualify for free/reduced lunch, receive additional federal funds for school operations. Our current school budget does include an annual allocation of approximately $6 million for regular maintenance for our school buildings. This allocation began in 2020 and has helped with many of the regular maintenance needs of the District. After years of the State of NC underfunding infrastructure needs, the addition of local funds to support infrastructure is much appreciated and this burden should fall on the State.

5. What is your understanding of what Critical Race Theory is? Is CRT currently taught in K-12 public schools? What are your thoughts on House Bill 324, the bill Gov. Cooper vetoed because he said it “pushes calculated, conspiracy-laden politics into public education?” Would you support such a bill? 

Critical Race Theory is a framework for understanding how race is embedded in the systems that surround and dictate our lives – housing, healthcare, education, and criminal justice, to name a few. The theory explores how the law has contributed to disproportionate outcomes around race – negatively impacting some and positively impacting others. As a Board member, I voted to adopt a Resolution of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education Opposing House Bill 324. This bill is an effort to prevent schools from teaching truth, history and focusing on equity. This bill is an effort to impede the necessary equity work that acknowledges the impacts of race and works to actively work against the status quo that marginalizes certain communities. This bill and the controversy over CRT is a fear mongering attempt to distract from the real work of acknowledging the ways systemic racism has impacted our schools. As a Board member, I will continue to fight for anti-racist education and keep equity at the forefront.

6. Does the General Assembly have a constitutional obligation to comply with the state Supreme Court order in the Leandro case to fully fund public schools and give every child in North Carolina a sound basic education?

Absolutely. As a Board member, I voted to adopt the Resolution Urging the State to Fulfill its Constitutional Duty to Provide Every Child Access to a Sound Basic Education. The North Carolina constitution states that we must provide our students with a sound, basic education. The West Ed report has clearly outlined what should exist to ensure that we met our constitutional obligation to the students of NC. It is now the General Assembly’s time to fully fund Leandro so our children can benefit. Our children can not wait.

7. Orange County’s Board of Education has passed some of the most progressive policies in the state around strengthening racial equity and providing a safe, inclusive environment for LGBTQ+ students to learn. Should Durham follow Orange’s lead and implement Gender Support guidelines that create a protocol for students who are transitioning or want to?

I served on the Durham Public Schools Racial & Educational Equity Policy Task Force and voted to adopt our policy. I believe that our policy is bold and ambitious. It is the starting place to explicitly name our equity aims as a district. Next, we need to operationalize the policy by creating the practices and procedures that will lead to the outcomes we want to see, including how we support our LGBTQ+ families. I am currently working with our LGBTQ+ families to listen and develop plans that will address the needs. We can learn from other districts’ guidelines and create something that is a best fit for DPS students and families. I know this progressive community will develop a policy that will fit the needs of our community. I brought the #Day1 Pledge from the Tyler Clementi Foundation to Durham Public Schools which takes a stand against bullying and to create inclusive school environments. As a Board member, I commit to developing the necessary policies, practices & procedures to ensure all students and families feel welcome and included in our school environments.

8. How do you think the current school board handled the COVID-19 pandemic? Please explain your answer.

As a member of the current school board, I believe that we navigated the COVID-19 pandemic by following the science, understanding our community and considering what is best for students. DPS employed a layered approach to health and safety by improving air filtration, universal masking and COVID-19 testing. We consulted with public health experts and doctors with the ABC Science Collaborative to guide our protection decisions. As the Chair of the Board, I advocated and secured early access to vaccines for educators and DPS partnered with the public health department to increase access to vaccines for educators and students. We have hired a COVID-19 response team who handles COVID-19 communications, contact tracing and supporting schools with testing efforts. We listened to educators, parents, students and the community to make decisions that balanced public health and students’ needs. While we continue to navigate the pandemic, I will advocate for using the necessary tools to mitigate spread in our schools.

9. Recently the DPS board voted to change how it assigns students based on community infrastructure in an attempt to address disparities and increase equity. Do you support the new Growing Together assignment model? Please explain your answer.

The Growing Together assignment model began two years ago as we realized the under and over -utilization of many of our schools. DPS first examined the history of Durham Public Schools starting with the merger of the City & County schools and the development of the magnet programs. Over many years, DPS’ magnet program became 30 different rules for 30 different schools. I believe the magnet application process needed to be simplified and create greater access for students in Durham. I voted to support the policy that moves to a regional model – I believe the regions will create better access for families, solidify continuity for some of our most vulnerable families (students who qualify for exceptional children programs) and increase transportation efficiency. While we are making these changes, we will need to continue to center questions about equity. Who will benefit from the new regional model? Who may this negatively impact? How do we decrease barriers for families to access magnet programs? There is additional work to do before the new assignment model is finalized. As we 5 continue this work, I look forward to listening to the community to center the needs of families, honor the history of Durham and provide excellent schools for all students.

10. Do police officers (School Resource Officers) have a role in schools? Do you agree with the way the current board is trying to address the role of SROs in Durham County Schools?

During my tenure on the Board, I have heard support and concerns regarding our SRO program. When I talk with some families and educators, they express appreciation for having an SRO monitoring the community for potential threats to the school and helping direct traffic during pick-up/drop-offs. Others express concern with the presence of law enforcement officers on school grounds due to the history of marginalized communities with the police. During my time on the Board, DPS has worked with community organizations to revise the MOU with the Sheriff’s Department to better define the role of SRO and strengthen the training programs for SROs. DPS has partnered with the City and County in the development of the Community Safety & Wellness Task Force that is reviewing the role and function of the SRO. The Task Force’s approach is rooted in listening to the community, examining different models of community safety and they will provide recommendations on what to do with the program moving forward. I appreciate this model because it is rooted in listening to the community and allowing the community to help develop solutions.

11. Research has shown an achievement gap for Durham County Schools students based on race and socioeconomic status. What specific policies would you support or what actions would you take to help close the gap so that race and socioeconomic status don’t persist as predictive factors?

Our Black and Brown students have promise and potential, we must do our part as a school system to make sure that it is realized by closing the opportunity gap. To increase academic achievement for students, we need a strong curriculum that supports student learning, an amazing educator who understands how to be culturally responsive in addressing the needs of students, strong partnerships with families and a school leader who creates a culture of learning. I voted to support the adoption of a district-wide curriculum, expand the Office of Equity Affairs, increase educator salaries and push our Superintendent to hire and retain great school leaders. To interrupt patterns of inequity, we first have to self-reflect, 6 what policies and practices do we have that promote inequities? What changes can be made to interrupt these practices? How do we as individuals and as a system remove barriers to success? During my tenure on the Board, I have supported changes to DPS policies that expand access to AIG curriculum, promote pathways to career education and expand pre-K options. Each of these help increase opportunities for students of color and students who qualify for free/reduced lunch. I believe we are moving in the right direction but we have so much more work to do. We must continue to expand the equity training offerings and we need to embed racial equity practices into our daily operations.

12. How can the school board better assist students who lack broadband access and access to laptops?

During the 2020-2021 school year, I voted to purchase devices for every student in DPS and hotspots to ensure access for those who needed connectivity. During the same school year, I worked with the City of Durham and Duke University to expand internet access to the Durham Housing Authority communities in Durham. I will continue to work alongside City & County officials to expand broadband access in our County and advocate to our state officials for the financial support in order to do so.

13. Is the district currently doing enough to assist disabled students? What more could it do?

Students who qualify for exceptional children (EC) services make up approximately 1% of our student population yet we are only funded for 12.75% of the average daily membership from the General Assembly. This leaves a gap in needs vs our state level funding. I’m grateful for the financial support from our local County Commission to be able to meet the needs of our students. We have an excellent Exceptional Children department who works to meet the needs of students who qualify for these services. We do need to continue to focus on our recruitment efforts to ensure that we are fully staffed in our EC department. This year we offered additional recruitment bonuses for this area.

14. If there is anything else you would like to address, please do so here.

For the past two years, I have served as the Board chair. In this role, I have:

i. Onboarded new Board members after the 2020 election 7

ii. Led the Board of Education through a Board member appointment process in the fall of 2020

iii. Established a collaborative relationship with the County Commissioners that has led to an increase in local funding, an annual maintenance allocation and working towards a bond for this fall

iv. Strengthened relationships with community partners (ex. DPS Foundation, Durham Technical Community College) that have expanded opportunities for students and families

v. Worked alongside our Durham Delegation to General Assembly to advocate for legislation on behalf of our school system

vi. Advocated for ESSR/ARPA funding to Representative David Price’s Office

My leadership style of listening, collaborating and working towards solutions is necessary for our Board moving forward. We will continue to face challenging decisions and we need a leader who will have a steadfast commitment to our students, educators and families in this role.