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Durham Public Schools' staff demand answers about announced pay cuts

Liz Schlemmer
Hundreds of Durham Public Schools staff crowded into a town hall meeting hosted by district administrators, to demand to know why they recently received notice that their pay would be reduced.

Durham Public Schools had fewer buses running than usual and many missing employees on Thursday. Some support staff didn't report to work after being informed that their pay would be reduced due to what district administrators call an accounting error.

Grounds supervisor Jarmaal Lawson says more than half of the members of his crew have not reported to work this week after being informed by email during the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday weekend that their pay would be reduced.

Jarmaal Lawson standing in his work uniform outside a Durham Public Schools' administrative building.
Liz Schlemmer
Jarmaal Lawson is a grounds supervisor at Durham Public Schools. He and the workers he manages have been informed that recent raises they received will be reduced.

“I’m losing about $1,400 a month,” Lawson says. “It’s a hardship. For me, I’m a single father. I’ve got a son I’ve got to think about.”

To address the accounting issue, the district has informed affected employees that it is eliminating locally-funded raises for support staff that the district implemented in October. Employees say they have already made financial decisions based on those raises.

“I had guys that went out and bought new cars, that got approved for new mortgages, that quit third jobs, second jobs. It’s unfair for a lot of them,” Lawson says.

Thursday morning, hundreds of Durham Public Schools staff crowded into a town hall meeting held by district administrators to demand to know why they recently received individualized emails describing how their pay would soon be reduced.

Administrators say they made an error calculating years of state service for about 1,300 employees, including many instructional assistants, cafeteria workers, physical therapists, transportation managers and maintenance staff.

Impacted staff at the meeting said this "error" amounts to a policy change because the district had a longstanding practice of honoring work experience at private employers as if it were state service. Some staff say that’s why they chose to work at Durham Public Schools. Others say that although they were technically employed by private entities, their past work experience was in service of Durham Public Schools.

“I’ve been here 23 years. However when I came to work here, DPS did not hire physical therapists, they contracted with Duke [University]” said Barb Tapper, a physical therapist. “You’re discrediting me 12 years of working with all of you – same position, same schools, same job responsibilities.”

As a result of the issue with determining years of state service, the district has told affected staff that recent locally-funded raises are being eliminated. Employees will continue to receive a state-funded 4% raise over their 2022-2023 salary.

The school board approved locally-funded raises following a salary study that recommended pay increases for classified support staff to make their pay more competitive for their skills. Employees began receiving the raises in October, with back pay to the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

Durham Public Schools’ director of strategic communications Crystal Roberts has confirmed that bus drivers are the only classified staff who did not receive raises related to the salary study and are the only group of classified staff not affected with the pay error.

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga told staff at the meeting that there were “flaws” with the salary study.

“For you to take back the money that you all happily gave us and then y'all take it back, and say go to work and do what y'all supposed to do. No!” said Octavia Smith, an instructional assistant at Hillside High School. “So from here on out you all will get the bare minimum.”

No group has called for an organized work stoppage, but many employees are individually choosing not to work.

“No solution, no school!” one employee shouted, to applause.

Durham Association of Educators in talks with the district

The Durham Association of Educators is a member organization that represents educators and school staff, and some of the affected employees are members.

DAE President Symone Kiddoo says Superintendent Mubenga has said the association will have a seat at the table in discussions about salary changes. Kiddoo says the association is asking for three things:

  • For the district to commit to not requiring employees to return pay increases that were received in prior paychecks this school year. 
  • For affected employees’ January paychecks to be the same as their December paychecks. A state law requires employers to notify employees in writing of any changes to promised wages at least one pay period in advance.
  • For school employees to be involved in conversations about changes to compensation.

“He (Mubenga) only committed to the last. We’re still fighting for the other two,” Kiddoo said.

While negotiations continue, Kiddoo says some employees might individually choose not to come to work.

“We have heard that there are a number of classified folks that are planning on not being at work this week,” said Kiddoo. “We have not specifically called for a strike, but we are workers and stand in solidarity with workers that are using their labor to demand what they need.”

Durham Public Schools’ communications office did not immediately respond to a request for answers to questions about the accounting error.

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