Durham Public Schools announced Thursday that all Friday classes were canceled due to “an overwhelming number of staff absences” following weeks of demonstrations by DPS teachers, staff, parents and concerned community members.
The district’s entire transportation support staff called out for Friday, likely connected to ongoing tensions related to the district withdrawing raises for classified workers upon finding that it accidentally overpaid its workers due to an accounting error between July and December 2023.
“[Durham Association of Educators] did not call for a Day of Protest tomorrow. We do not know why district administration has decided to close schools for students tomorrow,” DAE wrote in a Thursday statement. “Along with the rest of the Durham community, we eagerly await clarity from central office on exactly why this decision was made.”
The DPS Board of Education also voted Thursday to keep the February paychecks of DPS classified staff members the same as October 2023 and appointed Catty Moore, a current member of the North Carolina State Board of Education, to serve as DPS interim superintendent following the resignation of DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga.
“We are extremely fortunate to have someone with Catty’s knowledge and experience step into this role and help us lead Durham’s public schools," DPS Board Chair Bettina Umstead said. "She is the right person for this job, and we look forward to working with her to support our students and staff.”
How did we get here?
Weeks of walkouts, protests, contentious board meetings and a “walk-in” followed the announcement of raises being revoked, despite the board allowing workers to keep what they received throughout January 2024. DPS Chief Financial Officer Paul LeSieur resigned Jan. 26, while DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga resigned Wednesday. Mubenga will receive a severance payment of $297,759 and other deductions.
Affected workers were “classified employees,” which include instructional assistants, therapists, transportation workers, building services, grounds crews, cafeteria workers and custodial staff. Teachers were not affected by the payment debacle, though many have also been protesting in solidarity with the affected workers.
Several DPS buses have not run after a slew of workers walked out in protest, making transportation to and from schools a burden for parents. Busing disruptions were accompanied by several school closures after teachers called out sick in droves in solidarity with classified workers. On Jan. 31, 12 district schools could not operate due to staffing absences, and seven more schools followed suit on Feb. 6.
The workers, broadly represented by the Durham Association of Educators, were demanding that pay steps reflect non-DPS years of experience, commit to no pay cuts for February paychecks, publicly explain the reasons for the changes to workers’ January checks and schedule a Meet and Confer work session with the DAE the week of Feb. 12.
The Thursday board meeting
The board broadly met DAE’s demands on Thursday, voting unanimously to keep paychecks the same throughout February, voting 4-3 to postpone a decision on later paychecks until options could be discussed with workers, scheduling a planned work session with DAE on Feb. 15 and asking the district to clear up confusion about the workers’ January checks.
“Thank you to the Board of Education: for listening to workers’ voices, committing to transparency and collaboration going forward and keeping promises around pay,” the DAE said in a Thursday statement. “... We look forward to coming to the table and working together with the Board to continue to build the school system our students deserve.”
The board decided that it would discuss long-term payment options for affected staff on Feb. 22. It also discussed four long-term possibilities for classified employees going forward.
The first two options involved retaining the original third-party compensation study: a 4% raise but including the counting of in-state experience ($91.2 million) and an 11% raise while restoring the 2022-23 salary steps ($90.1 million).
The last two options involved eliminating the compensation study: a 15% raise from last year’s salary while crediting employees for out-of-state experience ($93.4 million) and a 15% raise from last year’s salary while crediting employees for out-of-state experience with an additional month of pay as recommended by the study ($94.1 million).
Three additional scenarios were also considered by the board, but it was determined that they could not be funded by the existing budget which was approved in December 2023.
Before the board’s votes and discussions about potential ways forward, a slew of Durham community members spoke to board members during public comment.
“You say that you do not have the money to [restore full steps and pay]. But you’ve just hired a six-figure comptroller and paid out a six-figure severance pay,” said Krystal Moore, an exceptional children’s instructor at Riverside High School. “I don’t think that the problem is that you don’t have money, I think the problem is you don’t want to spend it.”
Anna Berg, a physical therapist at E.K. Powe Elementary School, opened her statement by discussing her love for her job, which includes helping students learn to walk or stand on their own for the first time.
“There were 10 physical therapists in the district — now we have nine. Our colleague with over 40 years of experience resigned her position as of Monday due to this recent crisis,” she said. “If we are not respected and paid at the market rate, more of my colleagues will be leaving and it will be difficult to fill those vacancies.”
Other commenters talked about their personal financial struggles, as well as the desire to have their past experience fully accounted for.
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Jazper Lu is a Trinity junior and managing editor of The Chronicle's 119th volume.