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12 Durham public schools closed Wednesday due to mass staff absences

A Durham Public Schools' classified staff member brought this sign to a recent school board meeting. The poster lists the positions of employees who have been informed that their recent raises may be revoked.
Liz Schlemmer
A Durham Public Schools' classified staff member brought this sign to a recent school board meeting. The poster lists the positions of employees who have been informed that their recent raises may be revoked.

Durham Public Schools officials announced late Tuesday that 12 schools will be closed on Wednesday, due to large numbers of school employees calling out of work.

The following schools will be closed Wednesday:

  • C.E. Jordan High
  • Forest View Elementary
  • Hillside High
  • Lakewood Elementary
  • Lyons Farm Elementary
  • Northern High
  • Riverside High
  • Sherwood Githens Middle
  • Spring Valley Elementary
  • The Whitted School Pre-K
  • Y.E. Smith Elementary
  • Lucas Middle School

The Durham Association of Educators (DAE) says at least 75% of school employees at each of these schools called off work to protest recent cuts to raises for classified staff. Educators plan to rally at the Durham Public Schools’ staff development center on Hillandale Road at 10 a.m.

The chair of the Durham Public Schools board of education Bettina Umstead released a statement late Tuesday night saying the district is aware of the absences and the board plans to meet this Friday to review proposals for new classified staff salary schedules.

The pay dispute has rocked Durham Public Schools after the district announced it would revoke recent raises to about 1,300 classified staff. Those staff include cafeteria workers, custodians, instructional assistants, school nurses, physical and occupational therapists, and some maintenance and transportation staff.

Umstead said the board's discussion this coming Friday will include, "how we can meet our employees’ fervent appeals to honor their years of service while also staying within our budget."

She said the school board "looks forward to hearing from our classified employees regarding each proposal" for amending salary schedules. Anyone may submit comments on the proposals to the school board via email at or during the board's public comment period.

DAE says its members have been asking the district for a series of demands since staff first learned of the proposed pay cuts a little over two weeks ago.

“While there's been some progress, there's still a lack of transparency,” said DAE President Symone Kiddoo. “We're still waiting for the district's commitment to not roll back compensation that was promised in October.”

Before last Thursday’s school board meeting, DAE had announced that its demands of the school board and central office were:

  • To not require staff to return raises received for the months of July through December.
  • To pay affected workers the same in January as what was paid in their December paycheck.
  • To allow the Durham Association of Educators and affected staff to “have a seat at the table” in discussions about any further changes to their pay and salary schedules.

The school board met the first two demands at its Thursday board meeting. Kiddoo says the district has not made a public commitment to DAE’s third demand.
Following last week’s school board meeting, she says DAE members voted to amend their demands to include: no unilateral policy changes that lead to any cuts to raises and no erasure of staff years of experience that were formerly honored by the district.

Teachers and other educators are joining the protest in support of their classified staff colleagues. Many of those participating are not members of the Durham Association of Educators.

Kiddoo acknowledged the impact the absences will have on students and families.

“As educators, many of us are parents. We are caregivers of students, and we understand the anxiety that comes from last minute changes to schedules. But we are doing this for our current and future students,” Kiddoo said.

How Did The Pay Issue Happen?

Durham Public Schools officials have not yet held a press conference about the pay issue, which administrators have called an “accounting error” and an “overpayment.” Administrators have not described what error occurred.

Several facts are clear from public school board meetings:

  • The school board intended to pass significant raises for classified staff last year after conducting a salary study. 

School board members and district officials discussed the raises at multiple meetings in January and October, 2023. HIL Consultants conducted a salary study to recommend the raises. At the Oct. 26, 2023, school board meeting, board members congratulated district staff on implementing the raises that month after nearly a year of work.

  • The school board never formally passed the raises.

In a school board meeting on Oct. 12, 2023, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga incorrectly told school board members that they had approved the salary study and associated pay raises for about 2,200 classified staff in January 2023.

Board meeting minutes and video for January meetings do not show a record of that vote. Several board members asked for clarification about what they were being asked to approve in their October meeting and asked for documents to be posted publicly on the board meeting webpage to describe their vote. District officials said those documents were not yet available, but that the board needed to vote that day so that staff raises could be paid that month. The school board voted in October only to approve raises for a smaller subset of classified director positions.

  • The district never budgeted for the raises.

At last week’s school board meeting, board chair Bettina Umstead said, “our budget for this year did not include wages that were paid from July through December.” To pay for raises staff had already received in their July through December paychecks, the school board voted last week to spend about $4.5 million from its budget reserves.

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 in XX
Liz Schlemmer
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.

DPS gave inconsistent communication on how the district would honor years of state service

DPS human resources officers individually informed classified staff in October by email or through their supervisors of the exact raise they would receive. District officials also circulated a video describing the raises to staff.

Then in January, the district individually informed about 1,300 of the 2,200 staff who had received pay increases that their locally funded raises would be revoked due to an error in how the district calculates their years of state service.

Durham Public Schools has had a longstanding practice of awarding state service to employees who are hired into the district with relevant work experience at private or out-of-state employers. The number of years of state service awarded determines an employee’s step on a pay scale.

HIL Consultants recommended to district officials in a Jan. 12, 2023, school board meeting that they change how the district awards state service to employees whose relevant experience was with a non-state entity. HIL recommended awarding state service only for verified experience at a state agency.

At that meeting, Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources Alvera Lesane told school board members that some North Carolina school districts award state service on a ratio of one year of state service for every two years of relevant non-state experience, to save money in their budgets.

In a video produced by DPS and sent to staff in October, district human resources officials assured staff that the district would continue to honor out-of-state and private experience in their field as if it was equal to service at a state employer, as the district had done for years.

“DPS did not adopt some of the HIL consulting recommendations at this time,” HR technician Marsha Klein said in the video. “We understand that many employees bring valuable experience from different roles. So, we will continue to award 1:1 steps for all experience.”

“Legacy steps for existing employees will largely be maintained. However, new employees must submit appropriate verification forms to be awarded steps or experience outside of DPS,” HR technician Tanisha Alston stated in the video.

Affected staff say they were informed three months later, in January 2024, that work experience at non-state employers would no longer be honored when determining their salary, and that their raises from the salary study would be revoked as a result.

All Durham Public Schools’ classified staff will continue to receive a roughly four percent state-funded raise over their 2022-2023 salary. But many affected staff say they stand to lose hundreds of dollars a month that they received for half of this school year because the district plans to dock their years of state service.

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