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‘This is a train wreck’: In divided vote, Durham school board approves 11 percent worker raises

Classified workers in Durham public schools will receive a flat 11% raise over their 2022-23 compensation for the rest of the school year, the Board of Education decided on Thursday. The vote came at 11:30 p.m., five hours into the much anticipated and emotional meeting. It passed 5-2, with Emily Chavez and Alexandra Valladares voting no.

While workers will make more money than they did last year, many at the meeting were deeply unhappy with the decision. That’s because for many workers, paychecks for the remainder of the year will shrink compared to what they received in October through February. 

 “I drive 20 minutes north to work for a DPS school,” occupational therapist Leslie Riley said before the vote. “But I could drive 20 minutes south and make $10,000 more.”

The 11% raise was one of two options proposed by independent comptroller Kerry Crutchfield, who was contracted recently to examine the district’s finances. The other option was a flat 15% raise. According to Crutchfield’s presentation, which he had three weeks to pull together, the 11% raise was the most the district could afford to pay within the current budget.

The decision came at a packed meeting on the heels of a tumultuous six weeks. The grass around the property served as a secondary parking lot after the first one filled. People lined the walls of the room after all the seats were taken. Body heat became a significant issue — board member Jovonia Lewis fanned herself with a plastic folder as she listened to Crutchfield speak.

 In October, the school district gave raises to nearly 2,000 non-certified workers — cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, therapists, and more. But after giving the raises, the district discovered that the new pay rates would put the district at least $9 million over budget. 

At first, the DPS administration announced in January that they would retract the raises. But after the news prompted sickouts, protests, and school closures, the school system continued to pay the raised rates through February while the school board struggled to figure out a longer-term solution. The superintendent resigned earlier this month over the pay dispute.

“This is a train wreck,” board member Alexandra Valladares said last night. “A train wreck.”

Before hearing Crutchfield’s report, the board heard public comment from attendees. Having already seen the options online, many workers jumped to express their disappointment. 

“These are the same, reheated options,” said one classified worker. “Either option will cut my salary significantly,” said 15-year DPS employee Amy Tony.

“I don’t want to lose any of our very experienced staff to other districts,” board member Jessica Carda-Auten later said. 

Board member Emily Chavez inquired about possible funding sources for continuing to pay the higher rates through the end of the year. “I just feel like we should pay them what we told them we would pay,” she said.

“That’s what we came here tonight to hear,” someone in the crowd whispered.

Pulling from the school system’s fund balance and a recent $18 million grant from philanthropist MacKenzie Scott were both mentioned as options. But, pulling money from other sections of the budget isn’t as simple as it sounds, several system leaders said. Acting CFO Cierra Ojijo told the board that the 11% raise was the only option within the budget “reconciled the way it currently is.” Even if the money is there, rearranging it would be a much larger conversation, acting Superintendent Catty Moore said.

Crutchfield, Moore, and board chair Bettina Umstead also reminded the board that salaries are recurring expenses, not one-time payments. They urged the board not to fund salaries with temporary funds — grants and other monies that expire.

Crutchfield, a man with fluffy white hair and a readily available smile, said continuing to pay workers at the higher rates would cost roughly $1 million per month over the budget. 

He also alluded to tight funding for education across the state of North Carolina.

 “Don’t get me started about the equity of state funding,” Crutchfield joked. “You’ll be here all night!”

Another option would be to ask the county commissioners for money. The board was scheduled to meet with commissioners on Monday, but postponed that meeting until March. Umstead explained that the board hadn’t yet discussed its budget priorities for next year, which is what the meeting is supposed to be about. 

Though board members bounced around other ideas — for example, Moore said that rescinding the 7% raises granted to administrators in October is “on the table”— nothing within immediate reach seemed to offer a solution. 

“It’s been six weeks since we’ve been in this turmoil.” Umstead said before casting her “aye” vote. “I don’t love every single option today.” But, she said of the 11% option, “it allows us to stay in budget. What’s vital for us to consider is what happens now that is sustainable… that we can continue to increase our employees salaries for the future.”

As the debate came to a close, Crutchfield shifted his gaze towards the future. The next agenda item was to discuss budget priorities for next year — the subject of next month’s meeting with the county commissioners. Crutchfield signaled that the board has more tough financial choices to come. The school district faces financial “cliffs” ahead because of federal funds that will soon expire. 

 “As difficult and important as the decision you’re making right now, the next agenda item is actually going to be more difficult,” Crutchfield said, referring to the coming year’s budget.

 “You’re faced with a double whammy.”

After the vote, crowds of workers trudged towards their cars. Though the last six weeks have been fiery, last night many seemed more sad than mad. “I hope you’re doing relatively okay, despite everything,” one worker said to the man next to her on their way out. He mustered a half-hearted smile. “I’m trying,” he responded.

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Above (from top): Workers await a vote at Thursday’s school board meeting; interim Superintendent Catty Moore listens to board comments; comptroller Kerry Crutchfield presents as board Chair Bettina Umstead listens. Photos by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal