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Durham superintendent apologizes for Monday morning chaos

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga apologized Thursday night for holding classes on Monday, when torrential rains and a tornado warning caused chaos on the streets.

“It was a really tough day for our students, our staff, our families and our community members,” Mubenga said during a meeting of the school board. “That’s an experience that I will not let my staff go through another day.”

Mubenga said his team met Tuesday for a post-mortem. Aaron Beaulieu, chief operating officer for Durham Public Schools, explained the decisions school officials had made beginning Sunday afternoon.

He said school maintenance staff checked the district’s facilities and roadways Sunday afternoon for potential hazards. By then, the county had closed its emergency management center and the Red Cross had shut down its shelters.

A steady rain began Sunday night, but when school officials checked the weather between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., they determined the conditions were manageable.

Then the rain picked up. At 5:13 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning. At 7:32 a.m., the weather service issued the first of two tornado warnings.

“The early morning conditions became more severe than it was being forecast and took most agencies and businesses in the community by surprise,” Beaulieu said.

By that point, the buses were running, and authorities decided it would be safer for them to continue their routes so students could take shelter at schools.

“I take full responsibility for the decision,” Beaulieu said. “I regret that the conditions became such that for a time period we were truly not able to have a safe environment for the operation of schools.”

Mubenga said he would adjust his approach to storm-related school closures and report back to the board with a new plan next month.

‘It turned out we made the wrong decision’

Over the weekend, it seemed like Durham had largely escaped the impact of Hurricane Florence. The city experienced some rain and had scattered power outages, but nothing close to the devastation that occurred elsewhere in the Carolinas.

And then the rains came Sunday night. By Monday morning, the torrential downpour turned rush hour into a chaos of flooded roads and tornado warnings. A school bus got stuck in the mud. Some homes had to be evacuated.

Twitter and school switchboards lit up with complaints from parents who were angry over Durham’s decision to hold classes when several neighboring districts remained closed.

Lamont Lilly, who drove his 11th-grade daughter to Southern High School, was amazed that officials would transport students in such poor weather.

“I know what I saw in our 15 minutes of a ride,” Lilly said. “And I said to myself, ‘I really wouldn’t want a school bus driving through this.’”

Jen Meldrum, treasurer of the parent-teacher association at Forest View Elementary School and a parent to students in the first, fifth and eighth grades, echoed Lilly’s sentiment. “Normally you don’t cancel school for rain, but the fact was that these roads were flooding,” she said. “I don’t think that the buses probably should have been running.”

Meldrum said she tried several routes when driving her younger sons to school, eventually opting to run her car through the water on Erwin Road.

“I heard from one parent who said she had to take three different ways to go,” Meldrum said. “I have a feeling a lot of people did not send their kids in today.”

Durham Public Schools apologized late Monday to parents and staff troubled by the decision to hold classes.

“Although we made the best decision we could with the information we had this morning, we are sorry to our families and staff for the difficulties that came from our decision to open school,” the district said in a statement.

The statement said school buses would be routed around any remaining impassable roads and that all after-school activities and athletic events had been canceled.

Meldrum and Lilly said parents of schoolchildren also received a phone call from the school system at about 9 a.m. that explained that any absences resulting from the weather would be marked as excused, meaning students would not be penalized.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer for Durham Public Schools, said officials relied on the best information they had when they made the decision on Sunday.

Between conversations with city/county emergency management on Sunday evening and our own review of weather forecasts and road conditions beginning at 3:30 am, we were confident in our decision,” Sudderth said. “And it turned out we made the wrong decision.”

“I think once buses are running, it’s hard to pull them back and hard to make changes,” said school board member Natalie Beyer, who noted that the decision to open schools was made by Superintendent Pascal Mubenga and his team, not the school board.

“That was kind of the worst-case scenario all the way around,” Beyer said. “I think it was a very rare occurrence to have tornado warnings at the same time that children were at bus stops.”

Sudderth said Durham Public Schools would be convening “a group of major decision-makers” Tuesday to evaluate the information that factored into its decision and what went wrong. “We’re apologizing and we promise to do better,” he said.

When Florence started nearing the Carolina coastline last week, officials and emergency management personnel in Durham braced for an impact similar to that left by Hurricane Fran, which brought 79 mph winds to the Raleigh-Durham area and shut down Durham public schools for six days in September 1996. But Florence meandered to the west and caused more flooding. As it weakened, it seems that Durham officials began to relax.

County Commissioner Heidi Carter said the district began intensive emergency planning on Monday, Sept. 10, and continued at a slightly lower intensity through Sunday night. “Every day, leaders were meeting twice a day looking at all the information they had about the weather,” she said.

“It was just late [Sunday] that they lifted that level of advanced preparedness,” Carter said. “Then people didn’t spend the night in the operations center for the first time last night.”

The rain picked up dramatically in Durham after midnight Sunday, coming down hardest between 5 a.m. and 6 a.m. The rain gauge at Maureen Joy Charter School measured almost 7 inches of rain by noon Monday.

“I have no trouble at all believing that the intensity of the storm this morning caught people off guard,” Carter said, adding that emergency personnel returned to the operations center at 5 a.m. Monday. “Work did gear up quickly, but not in time to warn people that flooding was coming.”

At 5:13 a.m., the National Weather Service issued a flash flood warning. At 7:32 a.m., the weather service issued a tornado warning, which was passed along by the Alert Durham service:

“HAZARD…TORNADO…IMPACT…FLYING DEBRIS WILL BE DANGEROUS TO THOSE CAUGHT WITHOUT SHELTER. MOBILE HOMES WILL BE DAMAGED OR DESTROYED. DAMAGE TO ROOFS, WINDOWS, AND VEHICLES WILL OCCUR. TREE DAMAGE IS LIKELY.”

Some of the alerts that Durham residents received Monday morning.

When the flooding came, it made several major roadways impassable. At approximately 9:30 a.m., Orange County and Durham City firefighters were dispatched to Pickett Road, where a school bus got its back wheels stuck in a ditch after trying to turn around.

Durham public schools were not the only entity affected by the downpour. The flash flooding meant slow commutes, and some people had to evacuate their homes.

Interim Durham Fire Chief Chris Iannuzzi said 14 people were rescued from their homes Monday morning in North Durham due to flooding from the Eno River.

Eleven people were evacuated from houses on Rippling Stream Road in the Old Farm neighborhood just south of the riverbank. Three people were rescued in boats due to nearby flooding on Felicia Street, and the fire department also carried three more people trapped on top of a car on Hillandale Drive to dry land in a boat, Iannuzzi said.

By 3:30 p.m., the flooding had receded enough for the evacuees to return home safely, although standing water remained in their backyards. Iannuzzi said the intensity of Monday’s storm was unexpected, but praised his department’s mobilization to take action quickly.

“They train for this stuff, and they don’t get a chance to use it a lot,” said Iannuzzi, who has worked for the Durham Fire Department since 1996. “We don’t even remember a time outside of actually in the Eno River or in Falls Lake where we’ve put the boats in to make a rescue … This was certainly a unique event for us.”

Staff writers Hank Tucker, Ben Leonard and Daniela Flamini contributed to this report.

Update: Durham schools to shut down Thursday and Friday

Durham public schools will shut down Thursday and Friday in anticipation of Hurricane Florence, school officials announced Wednesday.

The decision was made “in the best interest of families and DPS staff and to allow for appropriate preparation for Hurricane Florence,” a press release said.

Previously, school officials had announced that schools would let out three hours early Thursday and remain closed through the weekend. All after-school activities and athletic events will remain canceled Thursday through Sunday.

Public schools to close early on Thursday, remain shut through weekend

Durham Public Schools will close early Thursday and remain shut down through the weekend due to Hurricane Florence, school officials announced Tuesday.

Students will be released three hours early on Thursday. After-school activities have also been canceled Thursday through Sunday, and plans are in the works to open shelters at select Durham schools for residents that need them.

And how likely is it that the closures will extend beyond the weekend? It’s too early to know the strength and impact of the storm, but many Durham residents tracking Florence have noted its similarity to Hurricane Fran, a Category 3 storm that brought 79 mph winds to the Raleigh-Durham area in September 1996.

Durham public schools closed for six days following Fran, according to archived reports from The News & Observer. School officials later adjusted that year’s calendar to add five and a half make-up days in November and January, including a few days during winter break.

Durham officials are encouraging families and staff to prepare emergency kits and monitor the district’s website and social media for further updates and announcements. Durham residents can sign up to receive personal emergency notifications at alertdurham.com.

Grades for Durham schools go up while state numbers go down

Students in Durham improved their performance on state exams last year, continuing an upward trend that had school officials celebrating this past week.

The improvement represents the district’s highest year-to-year bump in grade level proficiency in the last five years, Durham Public Schools announced in a press release.

The district’s accountability report said 48.3 percent of Durham students passed their exams, up from 46.4 percent in 2016-17, according to annual data from the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction.

There were still 15 Durham schools rated as low-performing — but the number was down from 18 last year and 21 the previous year.

School officials said teachers and school staff deserved credit for the improvement. “The constant last year was our excellent teachers and staff,” Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga, who started November 2017, said in a statement. “What changed was that we had the opportunity to fill a number of vacancies among principals and central administrators, enabling us to set a tone at the top.”

“These results reflect years of hard work by our teachers and staff,” added Mike Lee, chair of the Durham Public Schools Board of Education. “It’s clear that our new administration’s focus on data, equity, and student achievement is paying off.”

Schools are assessed on a 100-point scale, with 80 percent of the grade coming from the percentage of students who pass exams and the other 20 percent factoring in year-to-year growth.

Schools in Durham that received an A included City of Medicine Academy, Durham School of the Arts, J.D. Clement Early College, Magnum Elementary and Middle College High.

Durham schools that were handed the low-performing grades included C.C. Spaulding Elementary, Eastway Elementary, Eno Valley Elementary, Fayetteville St. Elementary, Glenn Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Brogden Middle, Lowe’s Grove Middle, Lucas Middle and Shepard Middle.

The district’s progress is not entirely reflective of trends across the state, however. Overall, fewer North Carolina public school students passed the exams this year.

But in Durham, five of 52 schools received the state’s top letter grade for performance.

Durham schools also saw a small jump in the number of schools meeting or exceeding growth expectations, meaning the school’s students made a year’s worth of academic progress during the year.

Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer for Durham Public Schools, said the Durham schools that received an F this year could be reasonably expected to earn a higher grade in the upcoming year.

“They are so close to leaving that F territory that with hard work and focus we think every one of them could,” he said.

Sudderth also noted that Durham saw a decline in performance on high school math and English, a trend he said was mirrored across the state. “That is an area of concern and we will be looking at that,” he said.

North Carolina has been rating school performance on an A through F scale since the 2013-14 academic year, when the Republican-led state legislature implemented the letter-grading system.

Supporters of the system argue that letter grades provide a simple way for parents, educators and community members to assess how various schools are performing. But critics say that the A through F scale tends to stigmatize schools in areas of high poverty.

More specific data detailing school performance by subgroups such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status is set to be released in October.

Tracking app lets Durham students avoid waiting at bus stop

Tired of braving the elements to wait for the school bus?

Durham Public Schools is encouraging parents to download “Here Comes the Bus,” a free app that allows them to avoid long waits at the bus stop.

Here Comes the Bus is a free app that allows parents to find out when school buses are about to arrive.

The app uses GPS tracking to estimate bus arrival times and send alerts to parents when their student’s bus is getting close. Parents who sign up using their student’s ID number can receive text or email notifications when the bus enters a certain radius from the bus stop or school. That makes it easier to avoid long waits, particularly in bad weather.

The Durham school system, which has been using the app since 2015, is encouraging parents who have not downloaded the app to give it a try now that schools are back in session.

Joe Harris Jr., assistant director of Transportation for Durham Public Schools, said the app provides flexibility to Durham parents with busy work schedules who cannot wait at the bus stop for extended periods of time.

“It helps with our parents that have to leave and go to work earlier than the bus arrives or before the bus drops off in the afternoons,” Harris said. “It can give them a sense of comfort.”

The app allows parents to set a radius around a bus when they will be notified.

Although the app requires a valid student ID number to access the maps, Harris said it does not track individual students’ locations for security purposes. So while parents receive alerts when the bus is coming or arriving, the app cannot indicate when their child gets on or off the bus.

The school system does not keep records of the number of students and parents who have downloaded the app. But parents have said they like the convenience.

Jen Meldrum, treasurer of the parent-teacher association at Forest View Elementary School and a parent to students in the first, fifth and eighth grades, said she has been using the app since it was first introduced in Durham.

“It’s just a great way to see real time where the bus is,” she said. “It takes away a lot of the guesswork.”

Meldrum said many other parents have reported using the app and that Forest View Elementary School’s parent-teacher association mentioned it in a recent newsletter to parents.

“It’s been very helpful I think for parents, she said. “It used to be that you could be waiting at the bus stop wondering why it was late, and you might have to call the school or the central office in Durham.”

Durham Public Schools previously contracted Synovia Solutions in 2013 to monitor its buses’ routes for efficiency. According to a 2013 resolution of Durham Board of County Commissioners, the county is slated to pay Synovia Solutions more than $75,000 this year for its services.

Several nearby school districts have also started offering the app this year, including Wake, Harnett and Granville counties.

The app is free on the App Store and Google Play for computers, smartphones and tablets.