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School bus chaos in Durham appears to be a coordinated response to a district pay issue

School Bus in Durham, NC
Dave DeWitt
Many Durham Public School students didn't make it to school today, due to an absence of transportation workers. Transportation staff are among a group of workers at the district who received emails over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend announcing that their recent raises would be taken away.

Early this morning, many school bus drivers in Durham arrived to work on time in the frigid air, but most of their supervisors and mechanics were nowhere to be found on the bus lots.

Although other Durham Public Schools administrators filled in to assign bus routes and open the gates — knowing that this morning was not business-as-usual — some bus drivers left.

"Many of our bus drivers made the personal decision that they were not driving today and went home," said Matthew Palmer, executive director of school planning, transportation and nutrition at Durham Public Schools.

As a result, many students didn't make it to school at all on Wednesday.

Certain transportation staff are among a group of workers at the district who received emails over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend announcing that their recent raises would be taken away.

Crystal Roberts, the director of strategic communications at Durham Public Schools, confirmed that bus drivers are the only "classified" support staff not affected by the pay announcement, but other transportation staff are. Some of those affected did not report to work.

Families dealt with chaos and confusion as Durham Public Schools announced at the last minute this morning that some bus routes would not be running, with schools already on a two-hour delay due to below-freezing temperatures.

In phone and text messages, the district urged families to drive their kids into school. The resulting traffic around schools was noticeably greater and caused long delays.

Durham Public Schools canceled bus routes again this afternoon, notifying families after lunchtime about the limited bus service.

Wednesday's chaotic situation stems from a pay dispute that began over the holiday weekend, when hundreds of classified support staff — including bus mechanics, cafeteria workers and physical therapists — received emails from the district saying their pay would be significantly demoted due to an "error."

"In the email I got on Sunday morning, it did give me a new salary that I would be getting in my paycheck, which is 16% less than I've been paid since July," said Heidi Jo Hetland, a physical therapist with Durham Public Schools.

The change would mean thousands of dollars less in her annual salary this year.

According to the district, about 1,300 classified support staff received similar emails. Teachers, bus drivers, and staff considered "certified" did not.

"It seems to me they're discriminating against the classified staff to make the budget work," Hetland said.

The Durham Association of Educators said they did not organize a sick-out or work stoppage.

"There are folks who work in transportation that are not necessarily the drivers themselves, that have felt fairly frustrated about the what has happened with folks' paychecks and the issues related to salary that happened over the weekend and decided to take some collective action around that," said Symone Kiddoo, president of the Durham Association of Educators.

Kiddoo said administrators have described the issue as a "clerical error" having to do with how the district honors an employee's past experience in their industry, or their service as state employees.

This also comes after Durham Public Schools significantly raised pay for some support staff this past fall, to make their pay more competitive for their particular industry. The raises were approved by the school board following a salary study to determine competitive pay rates based on Durham's rising cost of living and market rates for various skills.

The emails employees received over the weekend nulled those raises.

School administrators said affected employees will continue to receive a 4% raise over their 2022-2023 salary. This is the amount the North Carolina General Assembly approved for all state employees, but does not include the school district's previously implemented raises.

Kiddoo said that's been terrifying for employees who made major spending decisions based on the raises they were promised — and have actually been receiving for several months.

"Folks have purchased houses, folks have purchased vehicles," Kiddoo said. "They've made some fairly permanent changes to their lives, that now they're having to reconsider."

The Durham Association of Educators argues that the biggest issue is that the district hasn't had clear communication about the pay change, how any error happened or what happens next.

"When you're living paycheck to paycheck, having your pay changed, and not knowing why or how, or what to do about it is frustrating and kind of demeaning," Kiddoo said.

No one WUNC contacted has been able to confirm whether any workers might be absent any other days this week.

But Dr. Hetland, the physical therapist, said she's worried how students will be affected if school district administrators don't respond to staff concerns soon.

"Tomorrow is it going to be the cafeteria workers who are not here, because of this, and who decide to leave?" Hetland wondered. "I just want [school administrators] ... if they've made a mistake, for them to admit it and to be transparent."

Durham Public Schools Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said in a statement that he is "deeply sorry for the error that occurred" and wants to assure affected staff that the district is working to correct the issue.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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