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At a raucous meeting, a temporary pay reprieve for DPS workers

Durham Public Schools classified workers will not have to pay back any of the wages they were overpaid recently, the Durham Board of Education agreed Thursday evening. What those paychecks will look like after January is still up in the air, however. 

Board members voted unanimously to approve $4.5 million to cover the overpayments to DPS classified staff that appeared on October, November and December 2023 paychecks. The special allocation will also cover workers’ January paychecks.

The vote followed a raucous rally. At 5:30 p.m., as the board met in a closed session, hundreds of teachers, DPS staff, students and Durham community members gathered outside the DPS Staff Development Center to voice their concerns about the recent changes and wages. 

Community members huddled around a stage wearing red T-shirts and carrying signs such as “Don’t Play With Our Pay,” and “We Stand With Our Staff.” A band of drummers boomed in the distance. Rihanna’s “B**** Better Have My Money,” played through a speaker. 

“We need to stop the bleeding of this current classified pay debacle and win worker voice at the table where decisions are being made,” said Symone Kiddoo, president of the Durham Association of Educators.

An accounting error in a compensation study led to the overpayment of about 1,300 DPS classified staff members on their October, November and December 2023 paychecks. Employees who were given those raises, including instructional assistants, physical therapists, janitorial and maintenance staff and more, were notified about this error on Jan. 12 and informed that years of experience outside of the state or in the private sector would no longer be factored into pay. 

The pay dispute resulted in a walk-out by many DPS bus drivers last week. 

At the rally, Nykia Watson, a DPS cafeteria staff member and DAE member, shared her experience working in Durham after working in Delaware. “What we’re making now is what I was making in 2015 back home,” she said. 

The rain picked up, and the audience huddled closer together under a canopy of umbrellas. A DAE petition and union sign up sheet, now soaked in rainwater, continued to circulate through the crowd. 

As the board meeting began, rally participants packed into the Staff Development Center, filling the boardroom to capacity. Friends and strangers gathered around cell phones as they streamed the meeting from the hallway. 

“Fire up and fire him,” participants chanted from the hallways. “DPS lied!” They continued. 

Chair Bettina Umstead opened the meeting by requesting that audience members minimize commentary so board members could tackle the agenda. 

Dozens of speakers — classified staff members, parents, students and alumni — criticized the board for the error. “This reduction in pay impacts employees who already make the least amount of money, as well as many employees that work with students with disabilities, a population already marginalized within public schools,” said Erin Doncaster, a DPS occupational therapist. 

“As an employee I am hurting. Being informed of and given a competitive wage only to have it taken is insulting and unethical,” she added. 

Katherine Goldstein, parent of a third grader, took to the podium to call for the firing of the people responsible for the clerical error. “It is financial mismanagement,” she said. 

Cierra Ojijo, senior executive director of financial services, said the district could allocate $4.5 million in unassigned funds to cover the overpayments through the end of January.

Audience members shouted remarks throughout the discussion. “You failed us,” yelled someone from the back of the room. “How are they going to pay their bills?” another audience member said, gesturing to the classified staff members in the room. 

Classified staff members received a recent paycheck with the reduced wage amount, but the board confirmed that they will be receiving another check for the difference.  

“What about February?” audience members exclaimed. 

Classified staff member pay rates past the end of January remain uncertain. No immediate plan was discussed in Thursday’s meeting, but board members expressed their desire for a longer-term solution. “We need to meet again and discuss what will happen next, as an intermediate solution…we also are thinking about February,” said board member Emily Chávez. 

Umstead stated that there is an ongoing investigation to identify the error that led to the overpayments. =

Many DPS staff members, parents and community members left the meeting sighing. 

“I don’t feel secure. I don’t feel safe,” Quentin Headen, instructional assistant at Riverside High, shared during a break. “The answers I needed aren’t adequate right now.” 

Update: On Friday afternoon, Durham Public Schools issued a brief statement saying that the school system’s Chief Financial Officer has resigned: “Durham Public Schools Chief Financial Officer Paul LeSieur has submitted his resignation to Superintendent Dr. Pascal Mubenga today. Dr. Mubenga has accepted the resignation, which will be effective January 31, 2024. LeSieur worked for DPS for 13 years.”

Pictured above: Scenes from Thursday’s rally before the Durham Board of Education meeting. Photos by Audrey Patterson — The 9th Street Journal 

Audrey Patterson
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