Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines 89.9 Chadbourn
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
4/16/2024 4:00m: Our web player should now be able to play our livestreams on iOS 17.4 devices. Thank you!

To address pay debacle, Durham Public Schools will continue staff raises this month

Durham Public Schools' staff members stand in line to speak during the school board's public comment period, January 25, 2024. They bring questions, demands and concerns about recent raises they received that the district is planning to revoke after this month.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Durham Public Schools' staff members stand in line to speak during the school board's public comment period on Jan. 25, 2024. They brought questions, demands and concerns about recent raises they received that the district is planning to revoke after this month.

Tensions were high at the Durham Public Schools board meeting on Thursday night as staff members came looking for answers about why their recent raises were being abruptly revoked. Emails sent to about 1,300 employees earlier this month informed them that their raises would end immediately.

While board members offered few explanations about what led to the payroll issues, they voted to continue paying the raises until the end of this month.

Confused and angry workers have engaged in sporadic walk offs in the past two weeks, sometimes shutting down bus routes and cafeterias.

Administrators say the district made an accounting error that led to an "overpayment" based on how employees’ years of service are calculated. But affected staff say they were promised those raises.

Administrators had said staff might even need to return payments they already received — and may have spent.

Durham Public Schools implemented the raises in October as the result of a salary study intended to make pay more equitable and competitive for classified staff — including cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, occupational therapists, school nurses and maintenance staff.

The school board discussed the planned raises at multiple meetings last year, and administrators communicated the raises to staff this fall. But based on past board meeting minutes, it is unclear whether the school board ever formally approved the raises.

Staff began receiving their raises in October, with backpay to the beginning of the fiscal year in July.

Members of the Durham Public Schools' board of education listen to staff, parents, students and educators speak about their concerns with recent pay changes for classified staff.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Members of the Durham Public Schools' board of education listen to staff, parents, students and educators speak about their concerns with recent pay changes for classified staff.

The school board voted Thursday night to maintain the raises through the end of January. Employees will receive their January raise as a second paycheck, since reduced paychecks were already sent to staff.

The district will also not require staff to return any pay.

“That is not something that the district will ask you to pay back in relation to the salary study,” said Board Chair Bettina Umstead.

To pay for this, the school board is spending $4.5 million from the district’s budget reserves.

“We have asked the [central office] staff to identify money from the fund balance because our budget for this year did not include wages that were paid from July through December,” Umstead said.

Umstead says the board is investigating why the budget did not include funding for the intended raises.

The board also plans to continue to meet weekly to resolve other questions about how employees’ years of state service will be determined for future pay. The school board and district administrators have not clarified how the issue with employees’ years of service is related to the district’s inability to pay raises associated with the salary study.

The school district has turned down requests to hold a press conference to take direct questions about the “accounting error.”

Employees, parents call for accountability

Cafeteria worker Nykia Watson (left) and kitchen worker Nikita Davis (right) attended the Durham Public Schools' board meeting Thursday. They each say they are losing significant monthly pay from raises that will soon be revoked.
Liz Schlemmer
/
WUNC
Cafeteria worker Nykia Watson (left) and kitchen staffer Nikita Davis (right) attended the Durham Public Schools' board meeting Thursday. They each say they are losing significant monthly pay from raises that will soon be revoked.

Staff began congregating outside of the school board meeting nearly three hours before board members took their seats. Staff, parents and other educators packed the board meeting room, and while the meeting was delayed forty minutes, some in the audience yelled, “Start the meeting.”

Cafeteria worker Nykia Watson came to get clarification from Durham Public Schools’ administrators about the pay changes. Watson says when she received her paystub this week, her monthly pay was nearly $300 less than what she made in December.

“I’m a cafeteria woman. I didn’t ask to be an accountant. They’re the accountant — they’re held accountable,” Watson said.

Watson is one of about 1,300 staff at the district who has seen recent raises erased, with little explanation from the district.

“We know that we broke the trust of you all, our valued employees,” chair Umstead said in an opening statement. “We also know that to rebuild trust, we have to show what we’re going to do and not just talk about it.”

The votes by the board meet the demands of the Durham Association of Educators, a member organization that represents some of the affected staff. DAE called for the district to maintain raises through January, citing a state law that requires employers to notify employees of any salary reductions at least one pay period in advance.

“We are glad that the board is not going to claw back the money and to keep their promise to keep January paychecks the same as they were in December,” said Durham Association of Educators President Symone Kiddoo. “Workers clearly want their voices heard when decisions are being made.”

Several parents who spoke during the board’s public comment period called for the school board to terminate administrators who are responsible.

“If DPS has made a huge blunder and doesn’t have the funds for the much-deserved raises, then you have to fire the people responsible and get the county to bail the school system out. This is an emergency,” said parent Katherine Goldstein.

The district does appear to have made one change in its central office cabinet. The new funding plan was announced at the meeting by Cierra Ojijo, who introduced herself as the new Senior Executive Director of Finance for the district. The district’s CFO Paul LeSieur has been suspended.

Affected employees say they are still hurt by the sudden loss of short-lived raises that made them feel valued. They question what will happen to their paychecks in February.

“Everybody here wanted to know, will our checks reflect what y’all promised us for a whole school year? And that was never answered,” said instructional assistant Quentin Headen.

“I might look for another job,” said after-school program coordinator Gaile Sledge, who says she will lose about a thousand dollars a month from the lost raise. “It’s heartbreaking. It’s like a slap in the face.”

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email: lschlemmer@wunc.org
Related Stories
More Stories