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For voters, Durham schools drama loomed large

There was only one contested Durham school board seat on the ballot this Super Tuesday, but education was nevertheless top of mind for many who turned out to vote. 

Newcomer Joy Harrell easily defeated Atrayus Goode for the at-large seat formerly held by Alexandra Valladares, who did not seek reelection. Over 88 percent of Durham voters cast a ballot for Harrell, who leads a local arts nonprofit and has her roots in arts education. Atrayus Goode, who founded Movement of Youth, a youth development, support and mentoring organization, fell behind with under 11 percent of the vote. 

“With everything that our public schools are currently going through, there’s an expectation…the expectation can cause me a little anxiety. But the truth of it is that I want to serve well,” Harrell said. “I’m excited and at the same time very humbled by all the support.” 

Another new face on the board is longtime Hillside drama teacher Wendell Tabb. Tabb ran unopposed for the seat formerly held by Jovonia Lewis, who did not seek reelection and instead unsuccessfully pursued a seat on the county commission. 

Two other incumbents, Millicent Rogers and Jessica Carda-Auten, ran uncontested and will return to the board. 

The new board members join at a time when the schools have been rocked with crisis. On Tuesday, many voters said Durham public schools’ woes shaped their votes in local races and their attunement to local issues. 

Zoe Hall, a sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade teacher for Durham Public Schools, voted at the Edison Johnson Recreation Center an hour before polls closed. After casting her votes, she said, “I’ve been following what is going to create a better vision for Durham Public Schools, and those are the people I vote for.”

For Hall and others, recent payroll chaos within the Durham Public Schools system has inspired a greater focus on local elections. The DPS pay disputes erupted in January when the district notified 1,300 workers that raises issued in October would be revoked. The announcement shook classified workers — cafeteria workers, nurses, maintenance staff and others — and led to protests and school closures in January and February. 

In the wake of the DPS turmoil, Hall said, “Local issues felt the most in-our-face, the most important this year.” 

For Alexandra Golota, who voted at the North Carolina School of Science and Math as the sun set late in the afternoon, having friends with children has kept her engaged on the schools issue.

“I hope that this election can improve some things for teachers and school bus drivers,” she said. “Local politics is the thing that affects us most, living in this city.”

Donna Crutchfield also cast her ballot at the Edison Johnson Recreation Center. She said, “We have to get our education system back on track, it’s a must. Educators are not getting paid.”

Crutchfield said she assessed candidates at the local, state and national level based on their plans for education. She said, “Who’s gonna fix it, how are they gonna fix it, who has the best plan?”

Incoming board member Harrell says she understands the community’s demand for board transparency. “I really truly believe in equitable community engagement, and I want the community to feel like they are a part of this process, these decisions that we are going to be making,” she said.