Feb 4, 2024 - Education

Durham Public Schools unable to find solution to worker wage dispute

Illustration of a hand holding a protest sign in the shape of chalkboard with a graduation cap

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Durham's public school board has until Thursday to find a solution to an ongoing wage dispute that has angered its employees and led hundreds of them to walk out of schools, forcing some to close.

Why it matters: Durham's schools have been thrown into chaos after the school system rolled back raises for more than 1,300 classified workers after discovering it had been overpaying them due to an internal error since October.

  • Seven schools in Durham will close today, the system announced late Sunday in anticipation of more teacher call-outs in protest.

The latest: At a specially-called meeting on Friday evening, the school board attempted to make amends by reinstating partial raises for workers who were set to see their pay cut this month.

  • But the board couldn't agree on what type of raises it would give classified workers — a group that includes cafeteria workers, nurses and therapists but not teachers and bus drivers.
  • Those workers are set to see their wages decrease in this month's paychecks. Feb. 8 is the last meeting for the board to rectify the paycheck issue before payroll goes out.

Threat level: The Durham Association of Educators is demanding no pay cuts in February and said more teachers could walk off the job in protest.

  • 12 schools participated in a "sick-out" on Jan. 31.
  • The association says more walkouts are likely if the wage dispute is not resolved.

State of play: DPS employees have expressed anger at the school system's lack of transparency about what caused the overpayments and for not fully restoring the previous pay raise.

  • Dozens of workers told the DPS board at the Friday meeting that the current situation leaves classified workers underpaid and will lead to many workers leaving schools. They also called for an outside audit of DPS' operations.

What happened: DPS considered two options at Friday's meeting:

  • One that would give all staff a 4% raise without honoring out-of-state or private industry experience years.
  • And a second that would provide an 11% raise and bring back the school district's previous method of calculating years of service.

Both measures — which would have paid less than the raises given in October — did not get enough votes to pass.

  • DPS Board Chair Bettina Umstead said restoring the raises in full would cost the school system $9 million more than it had budgeted for the school year.

Catch up quick: In early January, DPS told the affected employees that salary raises that had been given in October and backdated to last July were in error and needed to be eliminated.

  • Many employees had made significant financial decisions, like buying a car or quitting a second job, based on the salary increases received.
  • Last week, DPS said it would use $4.5 million from its budget to ensure employees wouldn't need to pay back the salary bumps they received through January, but that the wage increase would stop in February.

DPS still has not explained how the pay raises it agreed to in October went over its budget.

  • But at the Friday meeting, the school system hired an independent comptroller and promised to release an internal investigation of what the board, superintendent Pascal Mubenga and former chief financial officer Paul LeSieur (who recently resigned) knew about the financial inadequacies.

What they're saying: "We're not saying that our employees are not worth the raise," Umstead, the board chair, said. "You're the heartbeat of our public schools, and we know that our schools can't function without you."

  • But "we cannot choose an option that's unsustainable and that would deplete all of our school systems' funds," she added.
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