Skip to main content

Alumnus Ed Dunlap retiring after 41 years at N.C. School Boards Association

In a Q&A, Dunlap talks about changes in the state's education landscape

Like many under-30 newly minted Ph.D.s, Ed Dunlap wasn’t sure which direction he should take his career.

Ed Dunlap
Ed Dunlap (’79, Ph.D.), is retiring from the N.C. School Boards Association after a 41-year career there.

Dunlap had worked as a teacher before coming to Carolina to earn a doctorate. He had a job offer, but it was with a small education-related association with only two employees. Was there any future there?

Dunlap did what most new Ph.D.s would do: He asked his mentor.

Dunlap went to his adviser, Bill Self, who was then dean of the School of Education. Self knew the education landscape of North Carolina, having led racial integration efforts as superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools during the 1970s before becoming a dean at Carolina.

“He said, ‘This would be an absolutely wonderful job for you,’” Dunlap (’79, Ph.D.) recalled. “‘It’s a blank canvas. You can turn that organization into your vision. You should do it.’”

School of Education ties
The N.C. School Boards Association’s history is tied to Carolina’s School of Education.

• The association was founded in 1937 by School of Education Dean Guy Phillips, who served as its executive secretary until 1966.

• The association’s first full-time executive secretary, Raleigh Dingman, had been one of Phillips’s doctoral students.

• The association was housed in Peabody Hall, in its dean’s suite, until 1971.

Dunlap did.

Forty-one years later, Dunlap is retiring from the North Carolina School Boards Association, which he has led as executive director since 1994. Under Dunlap’s leadership, a three-employee association has grown to employ 31 people with an annual budget of more than $6 million.

The association today offers highly regarded training programs for locally elected school board members, represents the interests of school boards before the General Assembly, provides professional search services for school boards seeking to hire superintendents, and offers a range of insurance and administrative services to school boards.

“Ed has been a transformative figure for NCSBA,” Brenda Stephens, president of the association, said in an announcement of Dunlap’s planned retirement. “He joined the Association in 1979 as employee number three and immediately went about the work of growing NCSBA’s programs for the benefit of its members and North Carolina’s public school children.”

Dunlap’s retirement is effective in January.

A career of impact

During a long career as a superintendent and then as chair of the Public School Forum of North Carolina, Michael Priddy (’70, A.B.; ’75, M.Ed.; ’81 Ed.D.) saw the impact of Dunlap’s work.

“Ed has left an indelible mark on public education in North Carolina, especially through his work to help local boards of education equip themselves for what has always been a very challenging job,” Priddy said. “So much attention is placed on activities at the state level given the role of the governor, the General Assembly, and the State Board of Education with its elected superintendent. Yet, the real work, yeoman’s work, is at the local level where citizens know personally their school board members, their school superintendent, and their principals and teachers.

“Providing advice and counsel to board chairs has been a daily activity for Ed,” Priddy said. “Through his efforts with the Master Board Training seminar program he established, our local boards of education have been able to build both understanding for their roles and respect for each other. The program has been hugely successful. And, it has helped local boards understand the need to embrace their stakeholders and publics.”

School of Education alumna Nancy Farmer (’69, A.B.Ed.; ’70, M.Ed.; ’81, Ed.D.) was Dunlap’s partner in creating the board training program. Dunlap empowered Farmer to write the training materials, train the trainers, and they would work together leading training sessions for school board members across the state.

“Frankly, I marvel at all he has achieved,” Farmer said, citing in addition to the training program, the association’s work representing school boards to members of the General Assembly, cultivating a strong staff, and careful fiscal management of the growing association.

“He has really made the association a truly professional organization providing real learning opportunities as well current information to school boards across the state,” Farmer said. “Ed does not have a bombastic style of communication. He is simply straightforward and I think people know where they stand with him. I am proud to call him my longtime friend and colleague.”

In his roles in various management positions during his career at the N.C. Department of Public Instruction, Ben Matthews (’71, A.B.; ’84, Ph.D.) frequently interacted with Dunlap.

“I have known Ed Dunlap and worked with him for over 30 years,” Matthews said. “I consider him a visionary.”

Matthews said Dunlap frequently identified ways to help school districts across the state. Matthews recounted an instance in during the ’90s when the federal government created a new program to be run through Matthews’s office that would allow qualifying school districts to borrow funds at very low interest rates for construction purposes. Matthews called Dunlap, saying he needed to get the word out to school district officials.

“He immediately suggested I join him as he went around to the school board regions in the fall of 1997,” Matthews said. “I followed his lead, and school districts were able to use over $130 million for school construction during the following years. It made North Carolina one of the most successful states to use the program.”

“He has been a leader and strong advocate for schools in North Carolina and the benefit from this is immeasurable,” Matthews said.

5 questions for Ed Dunlap

Following is a Q&A with Ed Dunlap.

Over a 41-year span, from your perspective from working so closely with school boards and superintendents, what are some of the biggest accomplishments you’ve seen in North Carolina?

I think probably the biggest thing that comes to mind is the Increased attention to the issue of equity — making sure that we are providing what needs to be provided to every child regardless where they come from. It’s the realization that children don’t come to kindergarten or first grade with the same experiences, with the same kind of opportunities. Somehow we have to try to remedy that.

When I started in this business, teaching in 1973, that was certainly not the case.

I remember vividly in 1975 I was teaching ninth grade physical science. We had something called “student locator cards” and on the “student locator card,” there was the student’s name, address, phone number and subdivision. I felt like, “That’s interesting. What difference does the subdivision make?”

So, I asked the principal and he said, “Well, Mr. Dunlap, that’s so we’ll know what to expect the student can do.”

I found that just amazing. Utterly amazing.

Hopefully, no principal is going to tell a 25-year-old kid who is just beginning teaching that now. I hope that’s true.

How did change happen? How did the need for greater equity come to be more fully accepted?

Partly it’s a mark of our changing times, I think. Hopefully people just saw the light.

But you also had different characters, different sets of people, who were getting into leadership and bringing those issues to light and talking about them, opening people’s eyes that had never, probably thought about that before.

Everybody did not grow up in a “Leave It To Beaver” family, and that makes a difference.

What are some of the things that North Carolina needs to do to help our communities overcome the inequities they currently face?

Well, I think that we have to keep on keeping the course and we have to make sure that leaders and our local communities and our state and our country don’t turn their back on the progress that has already been made and that we continue to endeavor to get the necessary resources that public schools need, and that those resources that we receive are used wisely.

From your perspective working with superintendents and school boards, you saw the tension between wealthier communities, wealthier districts, and those with fewer resources. How do we address the problem that we need more funding going to low-wealth communities without the higher-wealth communities feeling like it’s being taken from them?

Very delicately.

In the late eighties the General Assembly passed the low-wealth funding formula to provide additional resources and assistance to low-wealth communities. We were able to avoid a fight between the urban and the low-wealth districts by making the case that this is an equity move. The understanding was that some communities simply did not have the tax base to raise any money.

We attempted to make that argument and we did a fairly successful job.

But making that successful argument back then doesn’t mean that we’ve continued that. We’re going to have to be able to continue to make that argument. Now, every district needs more resources. But we’ve been working on this for 20-some years. And, it’s going to take continued work.

What are your plans for retirement?

I don’t have any concrete plans.

I had planned to do a lot of travel. Last October six of us went to Europe to do one of the European river cruises. We had such a good time. We had planned to do more of that, but 2020 happened. So those plans are kind of on hiatus until something has resolved.

I’m going to do what I tell my staff to do: to chill and to enjoy life. I’ll read the books that have stacked up on their shelf at home. And I’ll enjoy friends and family.

+ Share This

By Michael Hobbs