Split school board vote gives Durham its 2nd all-female elected board

The Durham school board selected a new member in a divided vote Thursday night that gives the county its second all-woman board.

Jessica Carda-Auten, a public health researcher at UNC and parent of three, was picked in a special meeting. Her two oldest children are Durham Public Schools students.

Former Vice-Chair Matt Sears resigned last month to take a job with the Durham Public Schools Foundation, leaving his seat vacant.

Three others applied:

Jessica Carda-Auten
Jessica Carda-Auten

A split vote

Longtime board member Natalie Beyer was first to speak up for Carda-Auten, complimenting her work with the Lakewood Elementary School PTA and her ability to speak Spanish.

“Jessica is ready to work with this board at this time,” Beyer said Thursday night. “She will collaborate thoughtfully and impartially with every board colleague and govern the superintendent fairly.”

Primus also had support. He attends the board’s meetings and often speaks critically during public comment periods, advocacy which Board member Jovonia Lewis acknowledged may rub some the wrong way.

“What I see in Kevin Primus is someone who desires transparency and accountability and always persists in a respectful way for those matters,” Lewis said, praising his involvement and expertise.

Kevin Primus
Kevin Primus

Board member Alexandra Valladares complimented his connections in Black and Latinx communities.

“We need somebody who’s ready to hit the ground running,” Valladares said. “We have an opportunity to change things for Black boys... Children’s lives are at stake.”

Chair Bettina Umstead said she appreciated the thoughtful questions brought by Primus, but supported Carda-Auten.

“I always come back to our students and what we need as a board moving forward to make sure we can be effective for them,” Umstead said.

The vote was split 4-2, with Valladares and Lewis supporting Primus and the remainder of the board choosing Carda-Auten. No other applicants received nominations.

Special election set for 2024

The board is now the county’s second elected body composed of all women. In 2020 Durham County voters elected their first all-female Board of County Commissioners.

Carda-Auten will serve through June 2024, when a special election will be held to fill out the term, which ends in June 2026.

In an interview with the school board last week, Carda-Auten said her priorities include closing academic achievement gaps, recruiting more Black and Latinx educators, and persuading more families to choose public schools.

She complimented the Growing Together redistricting plan passed in January, but said more intense focus is required to address inequities. Thousands of students will switch schools next fall as the district reshapes its boundaries and offerings.

“Our board can continue this work as we implement the plan by advocating that all schools — not just the magnet programs — have the resources they need to be amazing educational facilities where families are eager to send their children to learn,” Carda-Auten said. “Change tends to be difficult, but that does not mean that it is not the right path.”