Durham community members gathered outside Merrick-Moore Elementary School Wednesday morning for a “walk-in” in solidarity with classified workers of Durham Public Schools, who are facing pay cuts and ongoing staffing issues.
Organized by the Durham Association of Educators, the Merrick-Moore walk-in was held concurrently with walk-ins at over 30 other Durham public schools at around 6:45 a.m. The walk-ins follow weeks of walkouts, protests and contentious board meetings.
The conflict stems from a budget error that accidentally overpaid 1,300 workers between July and December 2023. Classified staff, which includes transportation drivers, instructional assistants, cafeteria workers and maintenance workers, have since seen their raises withdrawn by the DPS Board of Education, though they will be able to keep what they received through January 2024.
“We are just as important as everybody downtown at DPS, we are important. And we deserve answers, we deserve some respect,” Sue Sims, an instructional assistant at Merrick-Moore Elementary School, said to the crowd. “If we were in that position that they are in today, they would want us to show accountability, and they're not taking accountability right now.”
Protesters held up signs and demanded that the district restore pay steps indicating 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.
“Whose school? Our school. Whose voice? Our voice. Whose union? Our union. Can they take it away? No,” they chanted.
Brittany Thomas, the parent-teacher association president at Merrick-Moore Elementary School with two children attending the school, pointed to the effects of recent protests and the limited response from DPS on public schools across the district. 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.
Classrooms have also felt the impact of ongoing staffing issues. Jacob Beauchamp, a first grade teacher at Merrick-Moore Elementary School, told The Chronicle about his teaching assistant who couldn’t come to the classroom because she was participating in a protest against her pay cut at the Central Services building.
He described the “super positive energy” that his teaching assistant brings to the class and how the kids “miss her a lot.”
Addressing the concerns of parents, Thomas questioned whether DPS can still retain quality teachers if they are not adequately paid.
“Particularly with unstable employment, that's something that's really important for parents to know so that they do remain behind the teachers and staff because they overwhelmingly are behind the teachers and staff,” she said. “We want our schools to be safe places where we don't have ridiculous turnover.”
The walk-in ended at 7:15 a.m. as school staff, administrators and teachers returned to the classroom and parents dropped off students at the carpool lane. Staff members then passed out sheets of paper titled “Meet-and-Confer” in both English and Spanish to parents, encouraging readers to advocate for a more transparent relationship between school workers and DPS.
When asked about DPS’ responses to recent protests and union demands, Thomas acknowledged that the district “may be listening more than some other districts might” and that several board members have answered and met with her.
However, she criticized the board for the lack of negotiations with employees.
“To not take full responsibility unequivocally and say ‘We screwed up, this is our fault, and we're going to talk to you and listen to you and find a way to fix it.’ That's not happening and that's unacceptable,” Thomas said.
Beauchamp noted that although DPS has made progress, workers will continue to protest until the board establishes a process of transparency, collaboration and accountability.
“I think as we are kind of moving forward with it, they have made some changes that have been positive, but not everything has been done yet,” Beauchamp said. “So this is why we're still out here. And we're hoping to continue to make way for that positive change.”
Get The Chronicle straight to your inbox
Signup for our weekly newsletter. Cancel at any time.
Lucas Lin is a Trinity first-year and a staff reporter for the news department.