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Accounting error leads to the several hundred Durham teacher staging sickout

Hundreds of Durham Public Schools workers called in sick to protest last-minute salary slashes in the past several weeks.
An+accounting+error+that+led+to+salary+cuts+for+classified+staff+at+DPS+resulted+in+weeks+of+strike+that+closed+schools+across+the+district.+Students+and+parents+stand+in+support+of+school+staff%2C+but+a+compromise+is+yet+to+be+reached.+Photos+used+with+permission+from+National+Cancer+Institute+and+LaTerrian+McIntosh+via+Unsplash.+
An accounting error that led to salary cuts for classified staff at DPS resulted in weeks of strike that closed schools across the district. Students and parents stand in support of school staff, but a compromise is yet to be reached. Photos used with permission from National Cancer Institute and LaTerrian McIntosh via Unsplash.

Durham Public Schools (DPS) classified staff – that is, non-traditional teachers like instructional assistants or occupational therapists – received an announcement on Jan. 12, 2024 that stated an “accounting error” was made and that the 4% pay raise that was allocated for them in the annual DPS budget last year was rescinded. Staff would not have to pay back the overage. 

Affected staff were also told their Years of Service benefit was withdrawn, a salary increase for workers that had past experience in their position. Now, only state years of service are accounted for in their salaries. The news was given to staff with several weeks notice, angering both veteran and newcomer staff in the district. For many, it meant frustration from the loss of financial security and income, which was compounded by the lack of communication from officials. 

Our school community understands why the teachers are striking and think it’s necessary.

— Jesse Gavilan, Riverside High School

In a closed meeting with the school board on Feb. 7, DPS Superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga submitted a letter of resignation. According to the resignation agreement, Mubenga is owed $297,759 in severance payment. Shortly afterward, former Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) Superintendent Cathy Moore was appointed as interim superintendent. 

The DPS school board conducted an internal review of the cause of the implementation of the salary change and the miscommunication that occurred. The review found that Mubenga was informed of the issue in November 2023 and hired a consulting firm to investigate. In December 2023, Mubenga then informed chair Bettina Umstead and member Natalie Beyer of the issue. Mubenga failed to inform the remaining board members until Jan. 11, a day before the pay rescindment announcement was sent to classified staff. 

Employees confronted officials regarding the pay adjustment, including Mubenga, who held a Q&A session shortly after the announcement, but were met with a lack of answers. 

As staff sickouts continued in the following weeks, staff across various DPS schools called sick in protest. The Durham Association of Educators (DAE) organized strikes of staff across 30 schools, resulting in several hundred staff absences. Schools that were closed as a result of the teacher shortages are as follows: Hillside High School, Y.E. Smith Elementary, Riverside High School, Northern High School, The Whitted School, Lyons Farm Elementary, Githens Middle School, Spring Valley Elementary, Forest View Elementary, Lakewood Elementary, Lucas Middle School and Jordan High School. 

Although the payment issue extended only to classified staff, those in positions affected by classified staff absences, such as bus drivers who were forced to operate without bus mechanics, also called in sick out of fear for their safety. Teachers also called in sick or protested to support their colleagues. Individual schools were forced to close operations, but the walkouts caused DPS to close schools across the entire district on Feb. 9 and Feb. 12. 

We have only missed a couple of days and it’s for a good cause. Pretty much everyone I know is in support of the DPS Classified Staff.

— Rowan Hughes, Jordan High School

“Originally, the DAE went on strike for 1 day in about 9-12 schools I think. We then went back to school and about a week later they went on strike in 6-7 schools for 1 day,” said Jordan High School student Rowan Hughes, whose school was affected by the staff strikes. “On Friday the bus mechanics (separate from DAE) went on strike and this closed all of Durham Public Schools.” 

DAE announced terms of negotiations on its web pages, detailing the salary raises and staff expansions that it demanded. Among its terms, include a $6,000 salary increase for certified staff in their first 14 years of teaching, a $8,000 increase for certified staff with more than 15 years of teaching experience and a $3 per hour increase for all classified staff. Other demands include payment increases for English Second Language (ESL) certified staff, recognition of DPS teacher unions and new hires for instructional assistance, custodial staff and janitorial workers. A full list of demands can be found here

Many in the community, even those not affiliated with classified staff, stood in solidarity with the protests. Students explained that they didn’t feel as if their learning was disrupted by the school shutdowns. “We expect to not have school on Monday [Feb. 12] as well, [but] I don’t feel like the strikes are impacting my ability to stay on top of class,” said Hughes. “We have only missed a couple of days and it’s for a good cause. Pretty much everyone I know is in support of the DPS Classified Staff.” 

The support extended beyond sympathetic thoughts. Community members showed solidarity with the classified staff at rallies, donating meals to DAE-hosted food drives to feed hungry protestors. Non-classified staff also stood alongside their colleagues. “The general public has shown their support at school board meetings and rallies. The teachers [not affected by pay cuts] are also in full support of the classified staff. The students also support the strikes if it will result in salary [or] job security for classified staff,” said Hughes. 

Riverside High School student Jesse Gavilan expressed similar sentiments, although held reservations about long-term striking for classes that require face-to-face instruction. “It hasn’t affected my school work yet because it’s kind of still early in the quarter so the workload isn’t extremely bad right now. However, if it were to be later in the year I could possibly see it interfering with final projects that need to be done in person, especially for engineering students which is usually a hands-on [or] in-person class,” he said. 

Although many students see the strikes function as an extra day off from school, Gavilan believed it represented important issues impacting the school staff. “Our school community understands why the teachers are striking and think it’s necessary. Generally, most students, families, and teachers support it, however; I feel like a majority of students are supporting it because they get a day off, rather than actually having sympathy for the pay cuts of some of the staff members,” Gavilan said. “I think it’s mostly the teachers/staff members who are participating in the pushback because it directly affects them.” 

The organization is also in contact with the board to find a solution to the payment rescindment. On Feb. 9, DAE announced that negotiations with the school board resulted in a unanimous vote to keep classified staff paychecks at their previous rate through February, a 4-3 vote to withhold a decision through June and a scheduled meeting with the DAE to discuss further payment changes. The board will again meet to negotiate on Feb. 15. 

The general public has shown their support at school board meetings and rallies. The teachers [not affected by pay cuts] are also in full support of the classified staff.

— Rowan Hughes, Jordan High School

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Peggy Chen, News Editor
Peggy Chen is a junior at Green Hope High School, and this is her second year in the journalism program. She is thrilled to serve as the news editor and be able to report on the issues that she is passionate about. She is focused on covering climate, local policy, and food systems, but always loves a good investigative story. Outside the Falcon, she spends her time serving on the Los Angeles Times High School Advisory Board, playing tennis, and reading about space exploration. She is excited to make an impact through journalism at Green Hope!
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