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From ‘first perusal’ to ‘a failure of communication’: Chronology of a crisis

Durham Public Schools are in chaos over a wage dispute involving hundreds of school system workers. If you’re just tuning in, it may be difficult to understand what happened, and when. Here are some key dates.

January 12, 2023: The results of a study by HIL Consultants were presented to the Board of Education. The 39-page report, produced at a cost of $78,500 plus expenses, recommended raised salaries for classified workers.  Estimated cost of the raises was approximately $10.8 million, but the HIL representatives noted that this figure was merely based on their “first perusal.” This estimate was calculated using state-only experience steps.

October 2023: Some 2,200 Durham Public Schools classified employees — nurses, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, maintenance staff and others — received pay raises. DPS implemented the raises after a compensation study recommended it pay staff more equitable, competitive wages. Staff first received raises in October with back pay to the beginning of July.

The Durham Association of Educators, Durham’s local teacher’s union, said on Facebook, “Workers made life altering decisions based on those raises… Some upgraded their apartments or cars or childcare. Some quit second and third jobs.”

January 12, 2024: Via email, the DPS administration told staff its budget could not accommodate all the raises. The administration blamed the change on an “accounting error.” The mistake affected roughly 1,300 of the school system’s nearly 2,200 classified workers.

The district uses a “steps” system to pay employees based on their years of experience. Though Durham has long honored employees’ experience outside the public school system, some workers were told in the email that they would be assigned a lower pay step moving forward — one that did not include years of service with private employers.

January 17, 2024: Many transportation workers did not show up to work. As a result, DPS canceled numerous bus routes, urging families to drive their children to school.

January 26, 2024: The Board of Education voted unanimously to continue paying classified workers raised rates through the end of January. The board pulled $4.5 million from its fund balance — the district’s budget reserves — to cover the salaries. Read about that meeting here.

DPS Chief Financial Officer Paul LeSieur resigned, effective Jan. 31. LeSieur worked for the school system since 2011.

January 31, 2024: DPS closed 12 schools for the day after hundreds of school employees across Durham called in sick. Employees and supporters gathered to protest outside DPS’ Minnie Forte-Brown Staff Development Center. The Durham Association of Educators organized the protest, demanding a seat at the table in future negotiations over classified worker salaries.

February 2, 2024: The Board of Education held a special meeting to decide how to pay staff in February. After impassioned public comment and an hours-long debate, board members elected to push their decision to Feb. 8, 2024. Read about the details here.

February 5, 2024: The DAE organized a second day of protest. Seven schools closed due to staff shortages. Ahead of Monday’s protest, the group demanded that the board “restore everyone’s years of experience, commit to no pay cuts and pass a Meet and Confer policy.”

February 7, 2024: Superintendent Mubenga resigned after a 7-year tenure, effective Feb. 7. Board Chair Bettina Umstead announced the resignation after a three-hour closed session. Mubenga will receive $297,759 in severance pay. Nicholas King, Mubenga’s former deputy, will serve as interim superintendent.

The board also released information from an internal review that examined the cause of the salary issues. It blamed a “failure of communication from the finance officer about the true cost of the proposed changes.” According to the review, former CFO Paul LeSieur knew in February 2023 that the raises could cost up to $20 million. Mubenga first learned of the budget shortfall in November and alerted two board members in December to potential problems. He informed the rest of the board of the problem on January 11, the day before 1,300 classified workers were notified of pay cuts to come.

February 8, 2024: At its monthly work session, the board voted unanimously to keep paying classified workers raised rates through the end of February, meeting a demand by the Durham Association of Educators. Later in the meeting, the board voted 5-2 to push their decision on pay for the rest of the fiscal year to February 22. Also Thursday, Durham Public Schools announced Catty Quiroz Moore as interim superintendent following Mubenga’s resignation. Moore served as superintendent of Wake County schools until 2023.

February 9, 2024: All Durham Public Schools closed due to transportation staff shortages. “Our entire transportation support staff has called out for tomorrow,” DPS spokeswoman Crystal Roberts said. Though this didn’t include bus drivers, school buses cannot run without transportation supervisors and mechanics.

February 12, 2024: All Durham Public Schools closed again due to transportation staff shortages.

Nina Moske
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