Tabb runs for school board

Wendell Tabb, school board candidate (photo courtesy Wendell Tabb)

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024

By Max Kurzman

Wendell Tabb, a longtime theater teacher at Hillside High School, is running for an uncontested open seat on the Durham Public Schools board.

Tabb, who’s running in Consolidated District A, said his priorities include school safety, mental wellbeing, reading proficiency and teacher recruitment and retention.

He grew up an hour east of Durham in rural Louisburg and started performing in church around age five. His high school theater experience motivated him to become an actor, and he studied theater — especially technical aspects such as lighting and scenery — as an undergraduate at North Carolina Central University.

Though he had dreams to act in New York City or Los Angeles, his mother, a high school language teacher, encouraged him to get certified in theater education. That took him to Hillside, which was adjacent to Central at the time. He stayed there for almost four decades, building a program that earned national recognition.

Besides producing and directing plays, he started an international theater student exchange with at least nine countries and brought in luminaries to the classroom such as Danny Glover and Phylicia Rashad. The Tony Awards recognized him for excellence in teaching in 2017. When the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted in-person learning, he and his students put on a play, Why Mosquitoes Buzz, that they recorded virtually.

“We were able to be very creative in making sure that those students stayed active,” Tabb said. “However, across the board, I do believe that students lost a lot of instructional time.”

Tabb, 61, retired two years ago but continues to be involved in local theater as the assistant director for Triangle Performance Ensemble, which puts on the long-running Christmas show Black Nativity Durham.
When he was hired by Hillside in 1987, he joined the Durham Association of Educators, the teachers’ group that this month staged walk-outs in response to a pay dispute. He said he used to march with the DAE, as well as the North Carolina Association of Educators and National Education Association, in protests in Raleigh.

“We’ve seen this before,” he said, referring to protests over teacher pay. “That’s a conversation that teachers have been having for a very, very long time, and it’s something that we’re going to continue to have to have until educators are paid fairly.

“I totally support the educators, but I also understand that some mistakes were made,” he said of the dispute, which arose after classified employees were overpaid last year. “I think everybody needed a little more grace period to be able to figure that out, to keep employees happy and give them what they truly deserve, but also to make sure that we’re doing it in a way that we can stay fiscally sound.”

Tabb had his own dispute with the school board seven years ago. He sued the board for racial discrimination, saying the board refused to hire a technical theater director to help him at Hillside, a role some other schools had, and said he had been performing the work of two people. The Fourth Circuit ruled against Tabb the year he retired.