After upheaval, Durham school board decides how much staff will be paid. What to know

Durham Public Schools will stop paying last year’s promised raises at the end of this month, opting instead to give 11% raises to all classified staff for the rest of the year.

The Board of Education debated for hours before making the decision in a 5-2 vote Thursday night around 10:45 p.m. Vice Chair Emily Chávez and Alexandra Valladares voted against the plan.

It has been six weeks since a botched budget led DPS to withdraw raises from 1,875 classified staff, who are among the district’s lowest paid workers. That includes cafeteria workers, instructional assistants, bus mechanics, physical therapists, custodians and more.

The situation has resulted in protests shutting down schools and the resignations of the superintendent and budget director.

In the plan approved Thursday night, 74% of employees will make less than they were promised in October, and 35% will make less than they were promised in January.

According to the district, 80% of the affected workers make below $43,450, what DPS pays its first-year teachers.

How pay will change

When the district slashed pay in January, they did so by saying they would no longer count years of experience earned out-of-state or in the private sector as part of an employee’s overall experience.

DPS has traditionally awarded a step for every year of verified experience, wherever it was earned. That policy is called 1:1. It’s uncommon around the state and has been a significant draw for prospective employees.

All steps are now being restored, the board decided Thursday night.

The board also considered giving across-the-board 15% raises, which would have resulted in 61% of employees making less than they were promised in October and 30% less than they were promised in January. But a consultant warned this may be unsustainable, because it adds $2 million to the budget.

The raises are compared to last year’s salaries.

This is a developing story that will be updated.

Living paycheck-to-paycheck

School staff who spoke at Thursday’s meeting were unhappy with both proposals.

Aimee Toney is a 15-year employee who said she has lived paycheck to paycheck her entire life.

“Blanket percentages do nothing for alleviating wage compression in this district,” Toney said. “I’m afraid for my future, and I’m trying to find any benefit of working for public schools other than my desire to do it for the children.”

DPS employee Hannah Ball-Damberg dismissed the options as “insufficient, hasty and deeply harmful.”

Morale has bottomed out around the district, many said.

“Restaffing DPS after the damage you caused will cost you more than the deficit that we currently have,” interpreter Celia Mora Gomez said.

Katherine Wood, a parent, added: “DPS is offering a free marketing campaign for private and charter schools right now. That cannot continue.”

Can the county help?

Board member Natalie Beyer said 11% may seem like an arbitrary number, but it’s the maximum the district can afford.

“This is an impossible decision for this board, one we are struggling with mightily,” Beyer said.

Some questioned why the school board didn’t ask county commissioners for more money.

“You did not even try,” DPS physical therapist Barbara Tapper.

The two boards were scheduled to meet Tuesday morning, but Umstead said they postponed that meeting because it is designed to discuss next year’s budget priorities, which they’ve been unable to do.

Parent Girija Mahajan was one of several who criticized that decision.

“Postponing the Board of Education and County Commission meeting until after the primary election shows it has never been about the classified staff and the students they serve. This is about political power,” she said.

Thursday’s decision followed a presentation by Kerry Crutchfield, who for decades led the finance department at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, and was recently contracted to serve as Durham’s comptroller.

Crutchfield said the salary study on which the October raises were based was problematic. It created pay ranges about double the size of previous pay ranges, and the “inevitable” result was that implementation would not be sustainable.

No method of using prior experience to place employees on the new schedules was going to yield an appropriate result,” Crutchfield said.

DPS employee Geoff Seelen said that misses the point.

“This change was explicitly made to address wage compression,” Seelen said.

Interim Superintendent Catty Moore said the study’s recommendations weren’t inherently wrong and wouldn’t be a problem — “if we have the funding for it.”

Crutchfield recommended the 11% increase and said next year’s salary should be decided this school year.