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Consultant urges Durham schools to scrap pay scales, angering workers

Durham Public Schools should overhaul the way it pays classified workers, a comptroller told the Board of Education at a meeting Thursday night. But the proposal angered many DPS classified staff who have endured months of salary changes. 

Kerry Crutchfield, whom the board hired in February to examine the district’s finances, suggested abandoning DPS’ current “steps” pay system, which calculates workers’ pay based on years of relevant experience. He proposed a new system for calculating pay that reflects new state pay requirements. The new salary schedule, which would go into effect next fiscal year, would cost $8 million more than the district currently pays. 

The presentation comes over two months into payroll chaos that has rocked Durham’s school system. Pay disputes erupted in January when DPS notified 1,300 classified workers that raises they received in October were being revoked. The announcement rattled workers — nurses, cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, maintenance staff and others — and led to widespread protests and school closures. 

In late February, the board attempted to remedy the situation with a flat 11% raise for classified workers above their 2022-23 salaries. While the raise meant most employees make more than they did last year, many were disappointed that their salaries shrank compared to the October raises. 

At the meeting Thursday, classified workers raised concerns about Crutchfield’s new proposal, which the board released ahead of the meeting. 

Their comments echoed calls for higher pay that have rung out at board meetings since January. Many said classified workers feel overworked, underpaid and underappreciated, and the comptroller’s proposal would only exacerbate those concerns. 

Barbara Tapper, a DPS physical therapist, has spoken at numerous board meetings since pay disputes began in January. On Thursday, she appeared defeated. 

Referring to Crutchfield’s proposal, she said, “If you allow this presentation tonight, it will be a reflection of how little you care about your staff. At this point, I just want to throw in the towel.” 

Echoing a recent demand of the Durham Association of Educators, the union representing many of DPS’ classified staff, Tapper said, “You paid someone to give you results that you wanted versus a HIL study that spent years comparing us to other counties.” 

She referenced the study by HIL Consultants that DPS used as the basis to issue raises in October. Crutchfield has said the study was deeply flawed. 

Workers and parents alike told the board they could find higher pay and stronger schools in neighboring districts. 

Lauren Sartain, a DPS parent and PTA president, echoed the words of many. “Families and employees are curious. We are Wake curious, we are Orange curious, we are Guilford curious.” 

After lengthy public comment, Crutchfield rose to present his report. He adopted the tone of a parent schooling a misbehaving child as he explained the board’s errors. Classified workers and others gathered outside in the hallway, watching a live feed of the meeting on a TV screen.

Crutchfield blamed much of the recent turmoil on changes imposed by the state of North Carolina, starting with a state-mandated $15 per hour minimum wage effective July 1, 2024. DPS is legally required to pay employees that wage, Crutchfield said, noting that many districts have struggled to meet the requirement. 

The state has established maximum salaries for each pay grade, too. DPS can go above maximum amounts, but the district must pay the difference using local funds. Crutchfield recommended the district stay within the state’s minimum and maximum salaries except in very rare cases.  

“A lot of districts are grappling with that,” Crutchfield told the board. “A lot of them are grappling with it worse than you are because a lot of them are not paying as well as you are right now.” 

But Durham cannot blame its problems entirely on the state, he added. Crutchfield said that two historical decisions by DPS contributed to the current crisis: inconsistent pay steps and the compression of numerous pay grades. 

Current pay steps are “all over the board,” he said, ranging greatly in size.

“There is no consistency whatsoever,” said Crutchfield. “A step is not a step is not a step.” 

Crutchfield proposed that the district stop using pay steps and instead establish new pay grades that reflect the state’s required minimum and maximum amounts. Classified workers’ pay would still reflect years of experience, but it is not yet clear how those rates would be calculated. 

In the upcoming year, he added, employees would either receive a salary based on the reclassification or the current 11% raise — whichever is greater. 

Board members responded to Crutchfield’s proposal with skepticism, wary of further upsetting DPS staff. They requested comparisons between pay rates in Durham and neighboring districts and asked for more details on the implementation of Crutchfield’s plan. Chair Bettina Umstead said she hoped to involve DPS staff in conversations about the proposal. 

Crutchfield will return to the board in two weeks with more information.

Above: Teachers and others rally ahead of the recent school board meeting. Photo by Kulsoom Rizavi — The 9th Street Journal