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Speakers praise school budget’s ‘bold ask,’ seek more funding for specialized teachers

After months of uncertainty about the school system’s payroll and budget, the public had a chance to speak on interim superintendent Catty Moore’s proposed budget for Durham Public Schools at a public hearing Thursday. And for a change, the mood in the boardroom was pretty calm.

Many speakers expressed gratitude for the superintendent’s proposal, while advocating for more funding for Exceptional Children (EC) and English as a Second Language (ESL) staff. 

Jenn Painter, an ESL teacher at Jordan High School, said “I feel heartened by this bold ask and proposal after the year that 2023 to 2024 has been,” she said. “It feels good to be not perfectly aligned, but significantly aligned, with the board and the community.”

The proposed budget includes a long-awaited decision on classified workers’ salaries for the upcoming year. If approved, the budget would allocate nearly $9 million in increased compensation for classified workers.

The proposal comes after a stormy few months for the school system. In October, classified workers were given pay raises, only to have the raises rescinded when DPS leaders learned that the raises exceeded the school system’s budget by millions of dollars. The series of events angered workers, leaving protests and school cancellations in their wake. 

“Clearly, the decisions that had to be made were not in keeping with the promises that had been made to employees about implementing market rate schedules,” Moore said.

Moore called the proposed budget, which totals just over $26 million, a “bold ask.” But, she said, “it does not represent everything that is needed.”

She said the budget “demonstrates the commitment …  that this community expects for how we take care of, respect, and value our employees.”

Still, teachers, classified staff, and families pushed for more funding towards Durham Public School EC and ESL teachers and staff in particular.

Earll Williams, an EC teacher at Hillside High School, urged the board to consider creating a separate salary schedule for EC teachers, including a $200 per month raise for EC and ESL teachers.

Vacancies abound in EC classrooms across Durham’s public schools, Williams said, in part because current compensation levels do not reflect the difficulty of the job.

“One guy left because he could make more money working as a bag attendant at RDU,” Williams said.

Quentin Headen, an instructional assistant for EC students at Riverside High School, said even his own students have asked him: “Why is the EC department treated like the red-headed stepchild?”

Skye Diehl, an ESL teacher at Northern High School, shared similar experiences as chair of the ESL department at Northern High School. “I became department chair kind of by default, because everyone else left,” they said.

Diehl still expressed gratitude towards the board for reinstating pay raises for classified workers. “That’s going to be a difference for whether they stay this year, or not. So I really appreciate that.”

The proposed budget would implement pay raises for classified workers similar to those laid out in the original compensation study, Moore said. While not identical, she said their cost and objectives would be similar.

“There are some differences in it, but it would be implementing market rate schedules for classified staff, and completing the work that started in the past year,” Moore said.

The proposed budget also would raise DPS teachers’ annual starting salary supplement from $6,450 to $7,250. That would make Durham’s starting teaching supplement the highest in North Carolina as of now, Moore said. 

The proposal also requests over $1 million to pay bonuses to teachers with relevant master’s degrees, which would affect 200 DPS teachers. Over $2 million is requested for pre-K classrooms in the new Murray Massenburg Elementary School and general building repairs. Nearly $4 million would fund charter schools.

The school board is expected to vote on the proposed budget on April 25. The county commission will then decide whether to approve the school systems’ local funding request.

Many speakers also said they would stand by the board as it looks to have its funding proposal approved by the county commission.

“If you need our help, let us know. We will help you,” Headen said.

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Lauren Pehlivanian