The Durham Public Schools Board of Education released a report Wednesday night detailing extensive internal miscommunication and fiscal irresponsibility leading up to the current salary dispute.
The report constitutes an internal review of “the issues surrounding the timeline and implementation of changes to the salary schedule for approximately 2,000 classified employees.”
DPS provoked public outrage in January after it announced that at least 1,300 classified workers would have their recently-implemented raises revoked after an alleged payroll error led to mass overpayments. The following weeks were filled with protests, walk-outs and contentious board meetings as DPS teachers, staff, parents and supportive community members demanded answers from the district.
Tharrington Smith LLP, the law firm employing the board’s attorney Rod Malone, completed the investigation into the error. Malone was assisted by Kerry Crutchfield, an independent comptroller who the board agreed to hire during their Feb. 4 meeting after audience members expressed their desire for an independent investigation.
The report’s largest finding was a comprehensive timeline of administrative activity surrounding the salary issue.
Over a year ago, the board commissioned HIL Consulting to conduct a salary study to determine the best way to increase pay for classified employees. The results of the study were presented to the board on Jan. 12, 2023, and they planned to implement salary changes the following month.
DPS Chief Financial Officer Paul LeSieur was informed in February 2023 that a plan using the salary grades recommended by HIL — the existing system based on total years of experience — would cost the district over $20 million across all funding sources. The study had originally proposed an estimated cost of $10.8 million, though HIL labeled this a rough estimate.
The exact policy behind calculating worker steps, which determine employees’ pay based on years of experience, has been a point of contention throughout the pay dispute. The “Recommendations” section of the original HIL salary study makes a number of qualifications for determining appropriate step level.
HIL first recommended placing employees at the step that corresponds to “current longevity years within Durham Public Schools,” which means “years of work experience within any North Carolina public school system or state agency,” according to the new report. However, HIL noted that employees should be “placed at the actual years of experience verified by Durham Public Schools” when promoted, and they also recommended giving “private sector experience credit based on actual years of verified service for comparable job duties.”
After hearing about the cost increase upward of $9 million to implement the raises under this structure, LeSieur commissioned his contracted budget analyst to rerun the numbers. She determined that the changes would cost over $21 million. When he asked her to estimate costs under a system where steps were attributed using “state longevity” alone, the bill came to just over $13 million.
LeSieur moved forward with this $13 million salary plan, requesting an additional $4.1 million from the board to cover the overage from the first estimation. He did not inform the board that this budget estimate was calculated by changing the policy for determining worker steps. The budget was approved at the May 4 work session.
The new salary proposal was revisited during the Oct. 12 board meeting. According to the new report, “the administration repeatedly stated that the original HIL study had been approved by the Board in January, which was not accurate.”
After this meeting, the DPS Human Resources department developed internal communications for explaining that DPS employees would keep the same steps. The first updated paychecks were issued at the end of October.
It wasn’t until Nov. 8 that LeSieur alerted then-superintendent Pascal Mubenga to a “significant potential budget problem.” When Mubenga became aware of the $12 million in potential budget overages caused by the mistake, he contacted HIL to review the district’s finances and confirm if there was a deficit, which they did.
Mubenga informed Board Chair Bettina Umstead and Board Member Natalie Beyer that there was potential for a significant budget problem on Dec. 18.
On Jan. 4, 2024, HIL Consultants shared the results of their new report investigating the changes to the pay schedule. Mubenga contacted the board attorney on Jan. 9 and notified the rest of the board on Jan. 11.
DPS classified workers were informed of an overpayment error and told that their raises would be revoked the next day.
LeSieur was suspended with pay on Jan. 12. He later resigned on Jan. 26 and was replaced by Cierra Ojijo, former senior executive director of financial services for DPS, as acting chief financial officer on Jan. 31.
“When we first initiated these changes to our salary schedule, our goal was clear — to increase pay for our classified employees. We remain committed to achieving that goal and continue working diligently to provide all classified employees with clarity and certainty around their pay moving forward,” Umstead said in a statement accompanying the report’s release.
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Zoe Kolenovsky is a Trinity sophomore and an associate news editor for the news department.