Guess which county is home to the president of the N.C. School Board Association (NCSBA) and president of the N.C. Association of County Commissioners (NCACC)?
If you guessed Durham, you guessed correctly.
Durham Public Schools Board of Education member Minnie Forte-Brown was recently installed as president of the NCSBA, a nonprofit organization that supports school boards by providing superintendent searches, legal assistance, risk management services and advocacy efforts.
Forte-Brown’s installation, along with the August installation of County Commissioner Brenda Howerton as president of the NCACC, an organization that advocates for county government before all three branches of state government, gives Durham an influential duo that has a chance to set the agenda for the state’s 116 school boards and 100 boards of county commissioners.
Each will serve a one-term for their respective organizations.
Forte-Brown already has her sights set on Raleigh.
In recent years, North Carolina educators have been critical of the Republican-led General Assembly over public schools funding, school vouchers, charter schools support, teacher pay, the K-3 class-size mandate and numerous other issues they believe threaten the health of public education.
“Brenda [Howerton] and I have been gifted by God to do this,” Forte-Brown said. “If you have county commissioners, who are the funding source, and school districts collaborating, I think that’s a powerful piece to bring to your elected governmental officials that are sitting over in your state legislature.”
She noted that the K-3 class-size mandate requiring smaller class sizes in grades K-3 is particularly burdensome for school districts.
Many school districts fear the mandate will force them to eliminate art, music and physical education classes because smaller class sizes mean more classrooms and the need for more teachers for core subjects.
‘If you can only have a certain number of children in a classroom, what happens to your specials?” Forte-Brown asked. “We don’t even call them specials, because music, art, physical education, if you have a school that doesn’t have that, you don’t have a school. That’s not even a prison. In prison, they have physical education.”
Forte-Brown said the association’s boards and executive teams will meet in Durham in February to begin work on a joint agenda to present in Raleigh as state lawmakers begin budget talks.
“They’re the ones who are going to decide what the budget looks like,” Forte-Brown said. “We’re hoping to get ourselves together, hear from our children and our community. We will forge this alliance and make our presentations as a team and not in these silos where the counties are one side and the school districts on the other, and we’re fighting and not getting anything done for children.”
Forte-Brown and Howerton have known each other for several years, so Forte-Brown believes familiarity, along with the mutual respect they hold for each other, will help smooth the way for the two organizations to work together on issues important to their constituents.
In Durham, the relationship between the school board and County Commissioners is at times contentious, particularly around funding issues.
But Howerton said she and Forte-Brown have been able to disagree without being disagreeable.
“Even when we don’t agree, we respect each other enough to hear each other out,” Howerton said. “We’ve always been able to work through our differences. She sees my point of view and I see hers.”
Howerton said she is eager to begin the work of outlining the organizations’ legislative agenda.
“I think it’s going to be a good alliance to work together to build some alliances over in Raleigh,” said Howerton, noting that the memberships of the NCAAC and NCSBA include both Democrats and Republicans.
In August, Howerton said child-related issues such as early childhood education and young people living below the poverty line will be priorities for the NCACC under her leadership.
“We all get to push in the same direction to lift up our children,” Howerton said. “It’s important to me that our children have an opportunity to get a great education because they are our future.”
Forte-Brown said she grew excited when Howerton pledged to make children the focus during her time as president of the NCACC.
“When she [Howerton] announced that in August, I was so excited because the public schools always has that as their goal — all children thriving,” Forte-Brown said. “So, now the two main bodies, the funding sources, for public schools, county-by-county, have latched on to that goal as well.”
Forte-Brown said she knows that it’s going to take longer than one year to make impactful changes in the lives of the state’s children, but believes she and Howerton have the opportunity to set the tone for how the state cares for its children for years to come.
“That means adequate funding,” Forte-Brown said. “We’re not talking about children just surviving. That means a sound, basic education that produces excellent results. That doesn’t come on the cheap.”
Statewide, Forte-Brown said the theme for the NCSBA will be “mindful leadership,” with school districts focusing on equity, excellence and high expectations.
“Regardless of zip code, regardless of linguistic acuity, regardless racial and ethnic diversity, we know that all children can and will learn if intentionality and expectation are put there,” Forte-Brown said.
During a recent Durham school board business meeting, Interim DPS Superintendent Aaron Beaulieu, who attended Forte-Brown’s installation ceremony, said he is confident she will represent the children of the state well.
“Minnie will represent not only Durham Public Schools, she will represent the state and all the children in this community and all the children across the state,” Beaulieu said.
Forte-Brown was joined by dozens of friends, family members and colleagues during her installation ceremony in Greensboro. Incoming superintendent Pascal Mubenga also attended the ceremony.
Afterward, Forte-Brown headed back to Atlanta where she has been for the past several weeks helping to care for her daughter who suffered a spinal cord injury.
“I had about 23 people there,” Forte-Brown said. “I was really happy and really excited to have so many people there. My daughter and my oldest grandson were not there, but I had them there in spirit.”