Name as it appears on the ballot: LeVon Barnes
Party affiliation: Democrat
Campaign website: www.LeVon4Durham.com
Occupation & employer: Durham Public Schools Teacher
Years lived in North Carolina: 10
1) In your view, what are the most important issues currently facing Durham County? If elected, what would be your top three priorities?
- I believe the most critical issue facing Durham is economic insecurities and the economic gap between those that have the resources and those that do not have access to resources. In addition, there is a lack of trust between the government and the people who are most in need of the services we provide as County Commissioners. The only way to close the economic gap is a purposeful focus on education. We are at a critical stage in Durham where we need to have a “no nonsense and no excuses” approach to building wealth in areas where there are little to no resources; but be purposeful that those who will benefit are those from that community. If we can not put programs and policies in place, then the process of gentrification will continue and the gap will be beyond repairable. I believe that the focus on building this wealth comes from education and fostering entrepreneurship opportunities for black and brown citizens through grants and partnerships.
- The education component of bridging the gap is two fold: The first is that we must fund our public schools that serve brown and black students more, in order for these students to be highly competitive in the classroom and when they graduate to be job ready. Working with our local workforce development partners, the Durham Chamber of Commerce, Black Chamber of Commerce and DPS, we must build up our apprenticeships and internships opportunities to a level where our students receive summer trainings and year round trainings in order to begin work in a salaried position from the completion of high school. In 2019, 30% of DPS graduates stated they were opting to go right from high school into the workforce. I believe this will be an upward trend, so we must be proactive in our approaches here. I will be proposing that we match $7.25 for youth summer employment pay if companies build paid apprenticeships and internships that foster mentoring and future employment opportunities for our students after high school. If a coordinating body of stakeholders in our public, private, non-profit, education and youth development can make this a focus we can start closing the gaps and reduce crime in high-risk areas. The second part is offering our DPS students a chance at a post-secondary education debt-free by increasing our Durham Tech Promise. According to the My Future NC Commission by 2020, 67% of the jobs in our state are going to require a post-secondary credential or degree. In Durham County, 62% of our population have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 33% for black citizens. If we can eliminate the barriers of why most graduates do not attend college (financial/no interest in continuing school) then our children have a fighting chance to get out of poverty. I will be proposing that we increase the Durham Tech Promise from $1,000 per year to up to $4,000 per year over the next four years. This increase will provide students with an opportunity to break the cycle of generational poverty by eliminating a major barrier for students who cannot afford to further their education and account for expenses such as textbooks and other related expenses that can be funded as an education expense. Ultimately, this change will make our local workforce more attractive to employers coming into the county and provide additional access to higher education for students who are completing or recently completed high school. This program will be similar to the Birmingham Promise Initiative and Lynchburg Beacon of Hope Promise that Ms. Rosel Schewel mother of Mayor Schewel founded.
- Another priority is Accountability & Increased Funding in our Social and Human Services Department with a specific focus on mental health and chemical dependency. Building partnerships with community partners like Blue Cross Blue Shield, STARR program, and other state agencies is vital. By creating a pipeline with NCCU Social Work Department to increase the number of social and mental health case workers, it will lessen the caseload of current employees and build a positive experience for citizens who are in crisis. In this department, the emphasis on being effective, efficient and equitable has to be a priority.
- An additional priority is Focus on Public Safety. This focus will include a Re-Entry Wing within our jail in partnership with our Sheriff’s office. In addition, public and private partners including the Criminal Justice Resource Center (CJRC) will provide services while in jail. Ultimately, focus will work to end the high levels of recidivism (which is the tendency for a convicted criminal to reoffend) that we see in Durham County. Further according to a report done by the Indy over 1,000 residents re-entered the Durham County Jail ten or more times since 2011 with an average length of stay nine days at $125.00 per day. The cost is more than $1,100 per stay. We have to do better and we will.
As your next County Commissioner, I believe that finding new sources of revenue (only 9.2 million dollars of new money was generated in the last budget) that does not necessarily involve just raising taxes is critical in helping to accomplish these programs. Increasing property taxes is a regressive form of raising money and it hurts our most vulnerable populations, but I am committed to giving our next generation every possible opportunity to succeed. Taxes have been raised on our most vulnerable with no return on the investment. If we are going to raise taxes this our money being put to a purposeful use.
2) What in your record as a public official or other experience demonstrates your ability to be effective on the Board of Commissioners? Please be specific.
My entire life I have been in leadership positions that are team oriented such as the County Board of Commissioners. I have held top administrative positions in academia, sports and civic organizations. As the founder of Young Male Achievers (2005) a nationally recognized youth empowerment movement for black and brown at risk males, in just 6 years in Durham Public Schools have virtually eliminated in school and out of school suspensions for a membership base of over 120 middle and high school students. I was the head college basketball coach at Lackawanna College in Scranton, PA and was also the Associate Dean of Students/Career Development Coordinator all by the age of 30 (building winning teams, creating college wide policy, being the judge on violations and dismissal of students and helping students find the career path they wanted to pursue in the future). Since 2015 have been elected as the Precinct 54 Chair (Southpoint) of the Durham Democratic Party, the only non-elected official to serve on State Executive Committee for the Democratic Party, Progressive Caucus Chair of the Durham Democratic Party, Citizens Advisory Committee Chair (appointed by City Council) to tackle rapid rehousing and chronic homelessness. Everything I have done in my career has been around servant leadership, I have built a winning standard on integrity, honesty, discipline and team building. The responsibility of the positions I hold are humbling because everyday I get to affect positive change in someone’s life. So I am prepared to be Durham’s next County Commissioner from day one.
3) One of Durham County government’s primary responsibilities is school funding. A 2018 report from ProPublica found a wide gap between black and white DPS students in terms of discipline, achievement, and opportunity; it also rated DPS high in segregation. Is there anything the county can or should be doing to combat these issues?
- The demographics for Durham County are about 48.4% white, 39.34% black, and 13.4% Hispanic according to the US Census. DPS demographics are 45% black, 31% Hispanic and 19% White according to the DPS website. So, why do white families not send their children to DPS? The misinformation regarding how our schools are graded, the quality of the education, etc. are not just a national issue but very much a local issue. DPS schools, from elementary through high school, are very competitive based on course offerings, the variety of magnet programs and employing the best educators in the state. Thus, more communication is needed to translate the facts into practice. Another issue is the demographics of our educators. Especially in primary education, we need purposeful recruitment of teachers of color, especially Black males and LatinX members. Our students need to see role models who look like them. On the other hand, we work hard not to allow the racial demographics in DPS to affect learning outcomes because we are dedicated to reaching and teaching the kids that come into our buildings regardless of race, gender, disability status, and whether they come from an affluent or marginalized community. Students will be given the best education possible. DPS is on an upward trajectory and as a result of the advocacy of DAE and other groups who recognize the core issues and presenting them to the school board, superintendent and the greater Durham County community.
- The state has shown over the past 4 plus years that public education is not a priority, and classified, certified staff and retirees livelihoods are used as bargaining chips to push bad legislative agendas. The Leandro report confirmed that our state legislators are grossly under serving North Carolina’s next generation of adult citizens. Our county manager and commissioners have also shown hesitancy in closing this gap with data provided by the Superintendent and Board of Education as to why we need additional funding appropriated from the County budget. As one of your County Commissioners I will push on a gradual increase in our per student expenditure over 4 years until the state commits to increase per student spending to at least the national average. I fully understand that tough decisions would need to be made in order to find the funding, but our students have been on the back burner long enough. As a proud DPS teacher and the only teacher on the ballot I will always fight for our public schools.
4) In your view, what effects have charter schools had on education in Durham? Do you believe they have increased segregation, as critics contend? Or have they offered opportunities to those who would otherwise be trapped in poor-performing schools, as supporters say?
The impact of charter schools in Durham has had an adverse effect on Durham Public Schools over the last four years. I believe charter schools have increased segregation among white and black students (look at previous question for the demographics). Durham Public Schools are not poor performing, teachers are doing great work in schools, test scores should never be a determining factor of whether a school is performing well or poorly. My stance is that I DO NOT believe any local tax dollars should support charter schools, however, the hands of the county commissioners are tied to state legislation, but we can advocate for change at the NC General Assembly. Here are the facts:
- Overall DPS enrollment has dropped by over 1,000 students, whereas charter school enrollment increased by over 1,700 students over the last 4 years.
- Due to the great organizing work of DAE, DPS and the countless hours of work put in by school staff enrollment was up by a 1,000 for our current school year throughout the county.
- Currently, there are 11 charter schools in Durham, which have been allotted 24.1 million dollars in local funds that serves approximately 6,957 students (~20%).
- If a student leaves DPS to attend a charter school but does not return by September 30th, the charter school keeps those funds even though DPS is serving that student. Charter schools take advantage of that loophole; thus, in October, an extremely high number of students are “counseled out” because the charter school can no longer serve them.
While I respect a parent’s right to school choice (private or homeschool), I don’t respect the demonization of traditional public schools, especially from leadership on the state and federal levels. We as an organization need to work with our local, state and federal elected officials to eradicate such loopholes and as your next County Commissioner I will advocate for these loophole closures. DPS does so much more with less and charter schools get more and want more.
5) The City-County Planning Committee is reviewing and considering revisions to the Comprehensive Plan and Uniform Development Code. What sort of changes would you like to see emerge from this review? What is your vision for growth and development throughout Durham?
- Durham’s Comprehensive Plan and Uniform Development Ordinance has gone through a thorough undertaking with both the city-county planning departments doing their due diligence in forecasting land use for the future. While after reading I don’t disagree with many of the plans suggested, I would like to see a greater emphasis on Durham being a place that survives off of sustainable energy. We need to focus on the carbon imprint that we will have. We are projected to have over 356,000 people by 2030.
- Transportation (Objective 8.1): After the disaster of light rail and the 20 year and 130 million dollar investment, we are back to the drawing board. There are crumbling streets, dangerous intersections for pedestrians and a need to widen roads due to an increase in our population and single occupancy vehicles. We must have an efficient, equitable and environmentally friendly transportation system. Before we as commissioners spend excess money on potentials such as the commuter rail, we need to be certain that we can close the deal by getting signed agreements from all entities and ensuring transparency on the real costs.
- Economic Development (Objective 6.1): I have deep concerns about the lack of minority owned business in Durham and the grossly disproportionate distribution of funds that county has awarded The Chamber of Commerce ($265,000) compared to the The Black Chamber of Commerce ($0). This is clearly inequitable. It is impossible to grow our tax base if access to capital is limited to none for minority owned businesses. We also need to look at Support Minority Owned & Women Owned Enterprises (Objective 6.1.2) Plan to nurture Minority-owned, Women owned & other Durham-based Business (Objective 6.1.2a: Citizens are concerned because “white women” are considered a minority and that this subgroup has more access to funds/funding compared to their black and brown contemporaries. We need to make sure there is transparency and look at the data to see if this concern is valid. I would refer to question #1 of my proposals to help close the economic gap, these proposals would help with objectives in addition to the ones stated above (6.1.3, 6.1.4abc)
- Environment: Climate change is the biggest environmental issue we face. It is time that Durham does something about it. Durham can be in a very unique position to be on the forefront of solar energy and having all of our county buildings to operate under it. This will help bring clean energy jobs that we can train our local workforce in and be a huge economic booster. We can also setup an internal pricing system that will encourage and reward our own operations—including all County buildings, DPS, and Durham Tech—to move towards cleaner energy use while at the same time raising funds that could be distributed directly to our communities to help make living in Durham more affordable for those who need affordability the most. By pricing the dirty energy that the County’s own operations use today, we can generate funds to go directly to a community-based nonprofit that could focus on reducing the utility bills of our most vulnerable residents by funding energy-saving projects in their homes. We know that on an annual basis, operations from Durham County-funded institutions amount to over 70,000 tonnes of carbon emissions from our energy usage: electricity, natural gas and vehicle fuel. Many climate scientists, political scientists and economists agree that in order to encourage a reduction in emissions, existing emissions should be priced to incentivize a transition to clean energy use. This policy proposal calls for an internal carbon price on all Durham County operations that will be initially added to the budgets of all County institutions and departments and then will be collected annually by the County based on energy use data. When County institutions and departments reduce their energy usage, they get to keep the funds left after they reimburse the County for the price of their carbon use. The County in turn will allocate their carbon pricing collections to a local nonprofit that specializes in identifying and funding energy-saving projects among low-income residents, developing skills-based workforce training and investing in community-wide clean energy projects. Over time and as the program can advance, the County can upwardly adjust the price of carbon to encourage a greater transition to efficiency within County operations and also to boost funding of the local nonprofit. There are opportunities to ask the City and civic-minded businesses in the community to join the program and add benefit potential to more of Durham’s population.
6) City voters passed a $95 million bond to fund affordable housing efforts last year. What more should the county government be doing to further housing affordability? In light of the ongoing crisis at McDougald Terrace, what steps can the county take to assist those living in substandard public housing?
- First, what is happening at MacDougald Terrace and our other DHA properties is nothing new and is a human rights tragedy. All of the DHA properties have long been mismanaged, underfunded and not to code because the value of the people who live there hasn’t mattered. Both the city and the county have a responsibility to help our neighbors who are displaced. While the county normally is not responsible for DHA we are responsible for safety and well-being for the residents, what the county can offer is mental health services through our Allied Health partners, we should be working with Durham Tech, Durham Chamber of Commerce and other non-profit partners to provide resume building and job skills for the residents who are stuck in the hotels, we can ensure our seniors are getting the necessary medical and nutritional services they need as well.
- We have to change North Carolina law which does not allow local governments to require developers to build affordable housing as a condition to approval. The density bonus under the Unified Development Ordinance which is used to attract more developers to take advantage of the incentive to build more housing for low-income residents, is good but I feel needs constant revisions as development grows. Mandatory inclusionary zoning must be approved by the North Carolina General Assembly so we must advocate this on the local level which would mandate a certain number of houses be designated for low-income homebuyers at a price point that is equitable for these residents. Even though I have concerns for the recent $95 million dollar housing bond that passed in 2019, I feel that was a step in the right direction because it will help with creating new housing opportunities while repairing our existing stock and it will keep our most vulnerable residents in their homes. However, my concerns with the Durham Housing Authority (DHA) have not gone away in fact, I’m further concerned about their ability to manage this responsibility. As county commissioners we need to use the best practices, be innovative and creative with the existing laws, follow our plan in the UDO and if we are going to raise taxes do so in a way where we are doing the least amount of harm to those who are already marginalized.
7) With the light-rail plan having collapsed, what do you envision as the future of mass transit in Durham? What initiatives would you like to support? What do you believe to be a viable next step?
The principle components for a new public transit plan for Durham County is one affordability and two a legal written agreement from all stakeholders that they will commit to the project to completion. The people of Durham County got burned on the deal for light rail and lots of money, time and energy was spent on this project in which we allowed Duke University to kill a project 20 years in the making. We must have a new public transit plan that connects the city to other major cities but also the county, it needs to be eco-friendly and survive off of sustainable energy. We can take examples of how we can be more efficient from countries around the world. With over 10,000 people moving into Durham County each year we must come up with a plan quickly. I would like to see Solar buses be introduced into our county that could help alleviate some of the carbon imprint we have with our current stock. I am in favor of commuter rail, bus only lanes, and HOV lanes which will support more carpooling than single occupancy vehicle usage.
8) Do you believe the county’s current property tax rate is too high, about right, or too low? If you believe it is too high, what programs would you be willing to cut to bring down taxes? If you believe it is about right, how will you accommodate the growing need for services? If you believe it is too low, what programs or initiatives would you be willing to raise taxes to fund?
Property taxes are too high for everyone. I don’t think it’s a matter of cutting any programs, I think we have to look at the effectiveness, efficiency and whether the programs we fund are equitable for all of Durham County. The county does not do a great job of the evaluation of programs. Among staff there is no workforce survey that is provided to each department that is anonymous that could go about making changes necessary to better utilize tax dollars. I am fully aware that property and sales taxes are regressive ways to fund programs but until we can flip the NCGA to get rid of the Dillon Rule which in short restricts what local municipalities can do without state approval then taxes are going to go up. I believe like many that citizens of this county want to see a return on the investment, are my kids school safe? Is the air I breathe and the water I drink safe from carcinogens and pollution? Will I have the same opportunities to make it despite the fact I live in this zip code? Investing in Durham County residents has to be our top focus.
9) Property tax hikes can hit lower-income homeowners the hardest, especially those who own homes in gentrifying areas and are already seeing their land valuations rise as well. Is there anything the county can do to make the property-tax system more equitable?
- The North Carolina Constitution states that local municipalities have to operate under a uniform system of taxation. As a local municipality we are not allowed to charge different property tax rates, exempt property owners from getting taxed and expanding state property tax relief funds.
- We can only plead with our state delegation to write laws that allow local governments the opportunity to enact a property tax system that is equitable and fair and that will provide local government to provide relief to long-time homeowners who can not afford any raises in their property taxes due to a fixed income. Under Republican leadership in our state house and senate who would rather give tax incentives to corporations than to citizens I am not confident that this will happen unless we flip the legislature.
- The county has to be creative in providing more grant funding to our citizens. Currently we do provide relief for homeowners in three categories: Elderly/Disabled Homestead Exemption, Circuit Breaker: Elderly/Disabled Deferment program and Disabled Veteran Exclusion.
10) Since the 2018 election, the county’s new district attorney and sheriff have adopted reforms aimed at making the criminal justice system more equitable. Sheriff Birkhead has declined to honor ICE detainers, for example, while District Attorney Deberry has mostly ended cash bail. Do you believe these reforms are working for Durham residents?
I consider both Sheriff Birkhead and District Attorney DeBerry close friends and mentors who were overwhelmingly elected to their positions. I trust that they both have the right visions and fully support their initiatives. I know as your next County Commissioner that there will be open lines of communication between them and myself.
11) Last year, Durham saw a spike in homicides over 2018. What can the county do to address violent crime in the community? Are there preventative steps the county can or should take with regard to mental health? Are there any innovative programs in place elsewhere in the country that you would like to see implemented here?
We had forty-one homicides in Durham with the average of those killed being twenty-eight years of age; Furthermore, seven of those homicides were school aged children. This also includes a ten month old baby, nine year old, and two sixteen year olds. These children were likely taught in Durham Public Schools and were taught by one of my colleagues. These kids could have been our next leaders. So if you were affected, as we all should be, then public safety is a critical issue facing our county. We have to understand what the root causes of crime are: lack of opportunity and a lack of resources. So no crime can not be prevented, however the county must be proactive and not reactive when it comes to programming. In my platform I talk about increasing our social services budget with a special focus on hiring more case workers in the mental health field. It is a travesty that we have a large portion of inmates sitting in our jail due to mental health issues and that they know they can receive the services needed while incarcerated rather than receiving them in the community due to the many barriers that continually deny them the help they need. As a public school teacher, I work with so many families who are battling multiple diagnosis but can’t afford to get the treatment needed to help their children. I’m proposing creating a pipeline with North Carolina Central University Social Work Department that will connect one of our major institutes of higher education and the county. It is time that we utilize our homegrown talent that is here, our social service caseworkers are often overworked and that leads to bad experiences with members of our community who are in crisis already. As a county, we need to promote that mental health awareness is positive and productive. We have great programs in Durham like the STARR program that just need more resources to expand their outreach.
12) Economic inequality rose significantly in Durham County over the past decade (though it declined somewhat from 2017–18). How can county commissioners address this problem and ensure that the county’s prosperity is more equitable going forward?
- Durham has about 27,000 citizens who are living at or below the poverty line. What we fail to mention is that our civil service workers if they lost their jobs have maybe 1 or 2 months of savings stored up before they would be homeless and be below that 20% average median income (AMI) that would qualify for DHA assistance.
- We must have a “no nonsense and no excuses” approach to building black and brown wealth in the areas where there are little to none resources but be purposeful that those who will benefit are from that community. If we can not put programs and policies in place then the gentrification will continue and the gap will be beyond repairable. I believe that the focus on building this wealth comes from education and fostering black and brown entrepreneurship opportunities through grants and partnerships.
- The education component of bridging the gap is two folded: The first is that we must fund our public schools to be highly competitive in the classroom and also when they graduate to be job ready. Our educators in DPS work tirelessly to educate children and prepare them to be productive citizens without the funds and resources that are needed. Even with this evidence of lack, we can’t rely on the state to care for our children then we must do so. As previously stated, 45% of the students who attend DPS are African Americans so this is the root we must water the most. Working with our local workforce development partners, the Durham Chamber of Commerce, Black Chamber of Commerce and DPS, we must build up our apprenticeships and internships opportunities to a level where our students not only receive summer trainings but year round trainings as well so they can go right to work in a salaried position from high school. In 2019, 30% of DPS graduates stated they were opting to go right from high school into the workforce. I believe this will be an upward trend, so we must be proactive in our approaches here. The second part is offering our DPS students a chance at a post-secondary education debt-free by increasing our Durham Tech Promise. According to the My Future NC Commission by 2020, 67% of the jobs in our state are going to require a post-secondary credential or degree. In Durham County, 62% of our population have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 33% for black citizens. If we can eliminate the barriers of why most graduates do not attend college (financial/no interest in continuing school) then our children have a fighting chance to get out of poverty.
- The growth and success of local workforce development does not just rely on our students who attend DPS but our residents who live in our least resourced communities by offering opportunities. The residents who live in McDougald Terrace, Oxford Manor, Braggtown and Oldham Towers have a value and skill sets that can be put to great use. So between Durham Technical Community College, North Carolina Central University, and Duke University, a partnership should be formed that brings the resources for education to those communities directly. This will not just foster trust between communities in government but most importantly can change the culture for a whole generation of people.