Hundreds of demonstrators attended a rally Thursday evening in support of Durham Public School workers who walked off the job last week after accidentally being overpaid between July 2023 and January.
Organized by the Durham Association of Educators, the protest took place at 5:30 p.m. outside the DPS Staff Development Center. A special school board meeting closed to the public was held at 5 p.m. to address the workers’ situation before its regular 6:30 p.m. session.
Though the Board of Education pledged on Monday to allow affected workers to keep what they were overpaid, union president Symone Kiddoo outlined two major demands of DPS workers moving forward. She called for staff increases to address recent shortages that have left employees overworked and underpaid, as well as the establishment of a formal process for DPS workers to participate in formal planning and financial decisions.
“We are currently calling on the DPS Board of Education to pass a policy that codifies worker voice at the table in decision-making processes,” Kiddoo said. “We need the district to respect our years of experience, our voice and our union.”
Thousands of workers were accidentally overpaid between July 2023 and January due to a classified salary schedule approval error, according to DPS.
The problem centered around a recent change in policy about calculating worker experience. Work experience in the private sector or in other school systems had erroneously been considered as relevant work experience when assessing raises, when only experience within the DPS system should have been included.
DPS employees allege that their salaries are significantly lower than their qualifications by excluding their non-DPS experience.
“It’s just like they robbed us of our money,” one cafeteria worker said.
The issue affected classified staff, which includes transportation workers, instructional assistants, nutrition and building services staff and physical and occupational therapists.
“It sickens me to my stomach watching coworkers that I love feeling like the district is erasing all of their experience and everything that they brought with them to this district,” said one teacher from C.C. Spaulding Elementary.
Kiddoo was one of many speakers at the event, joined by students, parents, teachers and other union members clad in ponchos and “Red for Ed” DAE T-shirts who each shared stories of being undervalued in the workplace.
Carlos Perez has been teaching social studies at Jordan High School for seven years, where he experienced continual increases in workload and responsibility without compensatory salary raises.
“In those seven years, me and my coworkers across the district have been asked to do more with less: more duties, more shifts, more classes, more grading, more [personal benefits], more meetings, more paperwork, more caseloads, more bathrooms to clean, more bus routes to drive, and all this with less time, fewer teachers, fewer bus drivers, fewer custodians, fewer instructional assistants, fewer resources,” Perez said.
As the rain intensified, so did the crowd’s energy. Speakers’ remarks were punctuated by drum beats, cheers and chants of “whose schools, our schools” and “this is what democracy looks like.”
Accessibility was a priority for the event’s organizers, as each address was delivered in both English and Spanish with ASL interpretation.
While the rally’s main focus was addressing the grievances of DPS workers, Quentin Headen, instructional assistant at Riverside High School, made an effort to refocus attention on the district’s students who are suffering as a result of the staff inconsistencies.
“[Students] go to class with the intention to succeed and dream to perhaps be the first in their family to go to college. But due to institutional failures, panic over the stress and lack of direction and guidance, those very same students … are lacking in growth both academically and socio-emotionally,” Headen said.
A budget amendment was announced after the school board meeting concluded Thursday evening that would provide $4.5 million to cover the erroneously increased paychecks of DPS workers through January, but a long-term plan for addressing employee grievances has yet to be defined.
“If DPS fails to meet this challenge, then as a whole, we are in violation of free, appropriate public education because the students are the ones who are being punished with the current state of DPS schools,” Headen said.
A meeting for classified workers will be held at noon on Saturday at Eastway Elementary to discuss further action.
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Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department.