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Main Building at Durham School of the Arts

This February, the Durham Public Schools (DPS) Board of Education faced controversy after approving an 11% pay raise for classified employees in response to a payment error made in 2023. Due to the error, this pay raise is now temporary for many of DPS’ classified employees.

In October 2023, DPS classified employees received pay raises. Employees in this category include custodians, nurses, bus drivers (though DPS pays bus drivers on a separate pay scale), mechanics and instructional assistants, among other professions.

On Jan. 12, 2024, the DPS Board announced some employees were overpaid from July to Dec. 2023 due to an October salary schedule error.

Questions arose from DPS employees regarding how DPS would correct the salary error, with some employees concerned that it would lead to a pay reduction. Some employees told WRAL News that DPS sent them an email saying that their salaries had been reduced.

On Jan. 17, 2024, DPS dealt with transportation issues, in part due to bus mechanics and supervisors protesting. While bus drivers were not absent, transportation staff and mechanics were, without them, bus drivers were not allowed to operate the buses. On Jan. 25, DPS closed 12 of their public schools due to staffing shortages caused by the Durham Association of Educators (DAE), a Durham teacher’s union, holding a protest.

Before DPS’ Board meeting on Jan. 26, 2024, DPS released the statement, “We are sorry for the harm caused and understand there is frustration among employees who were affected, as well as throughout our DPS community. I want to be clear that we value each and every one of our employees, and that we are working hard to resolve this situation, to understand how this happened and how it can be avoided in the future, and to earn back your trust.”

Outside the meeting, DPS employees gathered outside the DPS staff development center, where they chanted, “DPS lied!” Inside the meeting, the board voted on continuing to playclassified employees at the higher rate for January. They also said staff would not have to pay back any money they had already received.

DPS’ Chief Financial Officer, Paul Lesoir, resigned, effective Jan. 31, 2024. Cierra Ojijo was hired as the acting CFO. She was DPS’s Senior Executive Director of Financial Services.

At the Feb. 2 board meeting, DPS announced two options for resolving the pay crisis. The first option giving all staff a 4% pay raise based on in-state experience alone. The second was an 11% increase over 2022-2023 compensation.

On Feb. 5, the DAE protested against DPS following the meeting. These protests caused seven DPS schools to close for the day. The DAE had several demands, including the board not cutting pay in February, explaining why January paychecks differed from December paychecks and a meet-and-confer session with DPS the following week. The meet-and-confer session would allow the DAE to help with the DPS Board’s decision-making.

The DAE said in a statement, “These workers made life-altering decisions based on those raises that they cannot undo. Some upgraded their apartments or cars or childcare. Some quit second and third jobs. Now, they worry if they will be able to pay their bills and feed their families when they get their February paycheck in a few short weeks.”

On Feb. 7, superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga resigned. Mubenga served as superintendent for seven years. Former Wake County Public School System superintendent Catty Moore was appointed interim superintendent.

In response to the resignation, the DAE released a statement saying, “Although we understand why Dr. Mubenga resigned – and district administration clearly must answer for keeping the Board of Education and the Durham community in the dark regarding the district’s financial situation – this was never one of our demands.”

“This pay debacle was never about one person, it is about the lack of transparency between DPS workers and administration, and the lack of worker voice at the decision making table,” the DAE said in a statement. Former DPS administrator Kevin Bullock also said Mubenga was not the only problem, telling ABC 11 he was concerned that Mubenga may have been used as a scapegoat.

Regarding the interim superintendent, Bettina Umstead, the DPS Board of Education chair said, “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.”

On the same day as Mubenga’s resignation, DPS released an internal review discussing the cause of the error. Hurd Isenhour Lopes (HIL) Consultants, who conducted the review, determined that the DPS Board implemented a pay schedule based on total work experience while DPS’ initial budget estimates assumed it would be based on in-state experience.

Former superintendent Mubenga became aware of the potential budget issue on Nov. 8, 2023, and hired HIL to investigate. Mubenga informed school board members Bettina Umstead, the board chair, and Natalie Beyer of the issue. On Jan. 9, they told the rest of the school board.

On Feb. 22, 2024, DPS announced it had approved the 11% pay raise. This pay raise was lower than the initial pay raise in October for many employees. In a statement posted to the DPS website, DPS said, “We are grateful to have a solution in place through the end of the school year that allows us to increase employee wages without devastating the district’s finances.”

The DAE released a statement on Feb. 23, “Thursday’s decision is only going to exacerbate the staffing crisis and the challenges we have recruiting and retaining good people in our schools. We have already lost irreplaceable classified co-workers because of this and many more will leave, not just because of the lower pay, but because of the disrespect.”

In the statement announcing the decision, DPS announced the creation of an ad-hoc committee for a meet-and-confer process and appointed four employees to it. This was partly due to the DAE’s request for its institution.

In a statement, the DAE said, “Last night the Durham Board of Education scheduled a work session with the Durham Association of Educators for next Thursday, centered around instituting a Meet and Confer process in DPS, which would finally give our union a seat at the table.”

The DAE also said, “This was the first real step towards Durham overcoming one of the last vestiges of Jim Crow law in our state— the ban on collective bargaining by public sector workers— and it was the direct result of our members taking historic action to organize our collective power.”