Wendell Tabb has never minded the spotlight. At five years old he serenaded his local church pews with spoken word, and in high school he commanded the stage, playing several roles in Louisburg High’s senior play.
Tabb may be familiar with the white-hot spotlight that comes with a life in theater, but the art of campaigning is unfamiliar to him. After a 35-year career as a drama teacher and director at Hillside High, Tabb is running unopposed for the Durham Public Schools Board of Education at one of the most turbulent times the board has faced. While other races have primaries, March 5 is the general election for the school board.
The schools have been in chaos recently as a result of a payroll dispute involving 1,300 DPS staff members. Schools have been closed repeatedly as workers walked out in protests over payroll issues, and school board meetings have been the scene of protests. On February 7, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga resigned after an internal study revealed that he was aware of the payroll error in early November but did not inform the board until January.
The promised raises are $9 million beyond what was allocated in the district’s budget. The school board voted to keep the higher pay rates through the end of February, but dipped into the district’s financial reserves to make those payments. The board has not yet resolved what workers will be paid for the remainder of the year.
Tabb hopes that a conversation will begin with county commissioners immediately about what relief can be provided.
“You have to bring people to the table to work out solutions, especially situations of this magnitude that could potentially cost taxpayer dollars,” Tabb said.
He hopes that future errors can be combatted by strengthened lines of communication between DPS staffers and board members.
Although Tabb is a rookie in politics, he plays the part well. As he enters the Southwest Regional Library dressed in a checkered suit, carrying a briefcase and chatting on the phone with his campaign manager, you wouldn’t know that this is his first election. He strolls into the conference room, laying out one packet with his biography and one detailing his school board priorities.
“With all that is going on with the school board, a lot of tension has been placed on me in terms of ‘are you ready for this?’” Tabb said. “And so I think it’s just been added pressure of understanding that there is work to be done. I am definitely prepared, but I think it’s a little different because there are pressing issues…We are operating in real time right now.”
Tabb is a born and raised North Carolinian. He grew up in Louisburg in Franklin County before moving to Durham for university and graduate school.
From a young age, education occupied a lot of his daily life. His mother was a high school French and English teacher and he had several aunts and uncles who were educators. “Almost every dinner conversation was about education,” he said.
At his own high school in Louisburg, he didn’t have a theater program or a drama teacher. Still, Tabb found his footing in the arts at the age of five by regularly performing a form of “spoken word” at church. He performed in his first real play in his senior year of high school, directed by his English teacher.
“‘Hail the Hunkering Hero,’” Tabb said. I’ll never forget it.”
Tabb was hooked. He contemplated pursuing acting professionally, studying theater education at North Carolina Central University. After college, he wanted to hit the road and follow his dream of performing, but he took his mother’s advice and received his master’s in education administration from NCCU.
His first professional job out of university was at Hillside High School in 1987 as the drama teacher and director. And although he intended to head to Broadway, a career in teaching stole his heart.
Thirty-seven years later, Tabb’s teaching accolades include the 2012 Durham Key to the City Award and an honorable mention at the 2017 Tony Awards for Excellence in Education. In 2019, the Hillside High Theater was renamed as the John H. Gattis–Wendell Tabb Theater.
During his time at Hillside High he directed dozens of plays, often grappling with social justice issues. “I select a lot of shows that deal with history,” he said. “Telling the story that maybe is not told in school, but we could tell it more so in production.”
Tabb’s original production “State of Urgency” drew on community experiences and was written in partnership with Hillside students. This show tackled issues ranging from police brutality to the rise of gun violence in Durham.
Tabb attempts to incorporate community input into all of his productions, he said. He would often ask district teachers for play suggestions.
“I think what made his teaching style so unique is that he actually connected students to real world experiences,” said Hillside principal William Logan, who supervised Tabb for 18 years.
Tabb often sought help from the community to put his productions together, recruiting people willing to aid in building sets, help with costumes or make sure everyone backstage was fed.
He also created an International Theater Exchange program that allowed Hillside students to perform around the world. Since the founding of the program, students have performed in six continents and over eight different countries.
Now, Tabb wants to focus locally and to serve his former school and the rest of DPS by sitting on the board.
Tabb says his number one priority is school safety and security. He believes in investing in school security systems that don’t resemble a prison-like environment.
He also wants to see a comprehensive plan to get students reading on grade level starting in the early years. “We can’t wait ’til they get to high school before we implement something, it has to be implemented from K through (grade) 3.” He is also a proponent for teacher recruitment incentives, such as bonus pay.
But he knows that in the coming months, the issue that is likely to dominate board conversations is the payroll crisis.
“I definitely want teachers and classified staff to be paid what they are due, and I also want students to be in class, so I would like for all of us to be able to work together so that we can accomplish both goals,” Tabb said.
Above: Photo of Wendell Tabb by Abigail Bromberger — The 9th Street Journal