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Short on money and teaching days, district leaders eye Feb. 22 pay decision

After a series of recent school closures, Durham Public Schools looms close to having to cut into teacher workdays or student vacation time to make up for days lost.  

“We’re not there yet, but we will be if we have additional school closures,” said interim superintendent Catty Moore at a DPS press conference Wednesday morning. 

Moore explained that while the school district starts the year with a “bank” of extra school days in order to accommodate snow days and the like, this reserve is thinning. Some schools are a single day away from cutting into teacher workdays or vacation time, she said.

Also Wednesday, Board of Education Chair Bettina Umstead voiced a commitment to decide on classified staff pay for the rest of the fiscal year at the board’s meeting on Feb. 22. “It’s time for us to find a solution, so we can raise our pay, be fiscally responsible, and consider future budget priorities for the district,” she said. 

The school system has been in chaos for weeks, following a payroll error that resulted in the overpayment of DPS classified staff. Workers were given raises in October, and in January, the raises were put in doubt. A series of staff and teacher “sick outs” and protests followed, as did the closure of all Durham Public Schools on Friday and Monday. Workers’ future pay remains uncertain. 

Umstead stated that the wage increases implemented from July through January exceed the district’s budget but that the board supports wage increases for staff.  

“What we know is the raises that our staff received from July through January was unsustainable financially for our district. What we do know is whatever solution that we end with, we want all employees to receive a raise,” she said. 

Umstead added that she has contacted the chair of the Durham County Board of Commissioners about the pay dilemma. “She is eagerly awaiting for Durham Public Schools to bring a proposal. So…the board of education needs to make a decision about long-term funding solutions,” she said. 

Umstead also raised questions about the original salary study that the school system relied upon in setting staff raises. She said more questions have come up as board members continue to review the salary study, which was conducted by HIL Consultants. “So I think we need to take a step back and evaluate that whole compensation study… to have a better sense of, is this study what we need for Durham Public Schools?” she said. 

The board will meet Thursday with the Durham Association of Educators, which has organized large-scale protests about the payroll dispute. 

“We need to take care of our people, and we need to be fiscally responsible with our funding, those are priorities that go hand in hand,” said Moore.