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Leftover resentments follow appliance purge in Durham Public Schools

April 1 is famous for pranks and practical jokes. 

But to overworked Durham Public Schools teachers with microwaves and fridges in their classrooms, there’s nothing funny about the appliance ban set to take effect in the district on April Fools’ Day. 

“For many of us, we spend more hours a day in our schools than we do in our homes throughout the school year,” Durham School of the Arts librarian Kim Gugino said at the Jan. 26 school board meeting. “Hot lunch and a cold drink are much of what keeps us going throughout the day.”

Gugino used some of her speaking time to share an AI-generated Shakespearean sonnet. 

“Our microwave and refrigerator too, are treasured things that we must pursue. For without them our life will be undone, our grip on reality, our career, all gone.”

The implementation date for the change was pushed back two months, from Feb. 1 to April 1,  in order to give the schools more time to prepare following backlash from staff. The policy was first announced in a January email by Chip Sudderth, chief communications officer for DPS.

“We know that many of you appreciate the convenience of microwaves, household refrigerators, and space heaters in classrooms and offices,” read the email. “However, the Fire Marshal Division has made it clear that they consider these appliances a safety risk and will fine or sanction Durham Public Schools if they are found in an inspection.”

District officials say they are attempting to juggle the mandates of the fire marshal, the demands of frustrated teachers, and the reality of a finite budget. 

“This is an area where the fire marshal has the authority to interpret the fire code and it’s our responsibility to follow his interpretation,” said Sudderth in an interview with The 9th Street Journal. “We worked with the Fire Marshal Division to try to make the most painless transition that we could.”

Part of that pain reduction process was pushing the compliance deadline back until April 1, after spring break. 

The ban was the topic of heated commentary at the January meeting.

“I haven’t seen educators this agitated in a long time,” said Joe Stapleton, a Jordan High School English teacher. “I know the fire marshal doesn’t care what we think. Fine. Frankly, I don’t care what he thinks either.”

At the meeting, the board approved funding for commercial appliances to replace the soon-to-be forbidden devices. The commercial appliances will cost at least $366,800 — $294,000 for 147 refrigerators and $72,800 for 208 microwaves across all schools, according to Paul D. LeSieur, the chief financial officer for the school district. 

In response, board member Natalie Beyer raised concerns about the district spending money on a mandate that seemed to come out of nowhere. “Where is this money coming from? Because we don’t have a piggy bank,” she said. “Where are we getting $366,000?” 

Earlier in the meeting, a teacher mentioned doing the work of several teachers due to vacancies. LeSieur told Beyer that the money would come, in part, from those lapsed salaries. 

Reilly Finnegan, a social studies teacher at Hillside High, did not think that amount of money would meet the demand. 

“I’m really concerned about the number we’re gonna be able to afford,” he said. “We’ve got hundreds of people using microwaves every lunch period, that’s staff and students included. So we would need dozens in just my building.” 

He also said he only usually has 10 minutes for lunch because he spends the rest of it helping students who are behind on work. 

Like the teachers, Beyer expressed frustration at the surprise of the policy shift. 

“Why was this okay last year? And why has a new employee working in Durham decided this is not okay this year?” she asked with a sigh. 

“If we lose one teacher over this, this was the wrong direction for Durham to be forced into,”  Beyer said later in the meeting. “So I look forward to kind of continuing to have really thoughtful conversations because we are all on the same team.”

Board Chair Bettina Umstead concluded with a conciliatory tone. “While this policy may feel like an attack, it is around how to keep our educators and families and everyone in our school buildings safe,” she said, just before the board unanimously voted to approve the nearly $400,000 for commercial appliances.

Sudderth, the DPS communications officer, told The 9th Street Journal that purchasing the commercial appliances was a necessary step. “There are certainly other things that we would rather be spending our money on. But when you look at the grand scope of the Durham Public Schools budget, this is a small percentage of that.”

Despite her initial questions, Beyer’s rhetoric softened after the meeting. She emphasized in an interview with The 9th Street Journal that the board would prioritize collaboration, not conflict, with the fire marshal and DPS staff.

“Our leadership continues to have ongoing conversations with the fire marshal to address any and all concerns,” she said. “I think everyone understands and agrees that we have a fundamental duty to protect students, staff, and school property.”

 

Chase Pellegrini de Paur