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Governance Troubles

Durham, N.C., board seeks to heal racial rifts.

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Gail Heath, the chairwoman of the school board in Durham, N.C., is feeling cautiously optimistic that the climate at meetings will improve.

Then again, the district has nowhere to go but up, after a tumultuous period that saw residents shouting at one another at board meetings.

In the past six months, critics have hurled profanities at the board, members have screamed openly at one another, and police have hauled several people off to jail. At a July meeting, a critic stood up to recount a dream in which someone shot three board members.

The spectacle prompted The News & Observer newspaper in Raleigh to call the sessions “one of the most notorious government meetings in the state.” The paper dubbed the meetings “must-see cable-access TV.”

“People were getting up and demanding resignations of principals and making accusations about individual teachers,” Ms. Heath said last week. “When I go to school board conventions, I hear, ‘It could be worse—we could be Durham.’ ”

The roots of the discord date to more than a decade ago, when the largely white Durham County schools merged with the predominantly black Durham city schools. In an attempt to ensure diverse representation, the county is divided into six school board voting districts, and one member is elected at large.

The board, made up of four white and three black members, voted along racial lines in March to restrict public comment at meetings to agenda items only. The decision angered African-Americans, who felt the move was intended to silence them.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell dressed down the school board in June for the change, and said the board needed to recognize how the acrimony was affecting race relations in the city. Since then, the North Carolina legislature has passed a bill requiring all elected bodies to allow 30 minutes of public comment on items not listed on a meeting agenda.

A citizens’ group and a local Realtors’ association, meanwhile, campaigned to change entirely to at-large board seats. But a petition drive to collect the 15,000 signatures needed to qualify for a referendum on the idea failed in July.

This month, Ms. Heath announced new rules in an attempt to clean up behavior. People will line up single file in the hall before entering the meeting; yelling or uttering profanities is forbidden; and the lectern for speakers has been moved in front of board members, instead of near the audience, to discourage grandstanding.

Vol. 25, Issue 01, Page 3

Published in Print: August 31, 2005, as Governance Troubles

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