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Durham schools superintendent resigns

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga has resigned. Bettina Umstead, who chairs the Durham school board, announced the news Wednesday night.

“Dr. Mubenga has done good work here in Durham, and it is extremely difficult to accept his resignation this evening,” Umstead said, after listing a series of Mubenga’s accomplishments in improving the academic performance of Durham schools. 

His academic record notwithstanding, Mubenga has come under fire recently following a pay dispute that has thrown the system into chaos, including days of protests and school closures. 

Mubenga, who joined the district in 2017, will receive $297,759 in severance pay under the terms of his resignation agreement. 

The announcement came after a three-hour closed session on Wednesday night. Before the meeting, the board had faced calls for Mubenga’s dismissal over his handling of the pay dispute.

In October 2023, over 1,000 Durham Public Schools classified employees received pay raises, only to be informed by email in January that the district could not accommodate their raises, and that they were being taken away. The employees, many of whom upgraded their apartments and quit second jobs, were left dumbfounded.

On Wednesday, the school board also released results of an internal review clarifying how the pay dispute came about. 

The report by the Tharrington Smith law firm elucidates that Finance Director Paul LeSieur was aware of the costs of the pay raises in February of 2023, yet did not inform the superintendent or the board of that information. LeSieur resigned on Jan. 31. 

“There was a lack of clarity and a failure of communication from the finance officer about the true cost of the proposed changes to the salary schedule,” the report states. “The finance officer knew in February 2023 that the cost of the pay raises could rise from $10 million to $20 million based on how years of service are calculated. That variability was never communicated to the School Board and budget proposals consistently showed the cost as approximately $10 million.”

In November, Superintendent Mubenga became aware that the district had promised classified workers money that it did not have, the report states. He remained silent, telling two board members in December and advising the full board in January. The lack of clarity surrounding the situation has cost district nurses, cafeteria workers, instructional assistance, maintenance staff and others much of their livelihood.

“When we first initiated these changes to our salary schedule, our goal was clear — to increase pay for our classified employees,”  Umstead said on Wednesday. “We remain committed to achieving that goal…and to provide all classified employees with clarity and certainty around their pay moving forward.” 

Before the meeting, the Durham Association of Educators again held protests outside the district headquarters. 

Sonja Thalheimer, a participant in the demonstration and DPS certified staff member, is upset, worried, and stressed. “It is crucial to all of our schools that all of our staff are respected, both in how they are communicated with and the money they are paid.” 

Thalheimer hopes that at Thursday evening’s meeting the board will listen and meet the DAE’s demands, which include keeping February paychecks whole. 

“These days it doesn’t feel like chaos, it just feels sad and hard,” she said. “Classified folks are really upset, confused, and worried.”

DPS Deputy Superintendent Nicholas King was appointed by the board to serve in Mubenga’s place until a provisional superintendent can be selected. Mubenga’s last day of work is Feb. 7.

Read more: A timeline of the Durham Public Schools payroll crisis. 

Above: DPS Superintendent Pascal Mubenga listens at a Feb. 2 meeting of the school board. Photos by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal 

Jon Kuperschmid