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Durham advocates react to school staff's days of protest, impact on students

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In October, thousands of classified staff members in Durham Public Schools — including bus mechanics, instructional assistants and cafeteria workers — received raises from the district.

However, DPS announced in January that, due to an accounting error when changing staff salaries, over 1,000 classified staff members had been overpaid for months. DPS withdrew the pay raises by excluding private sector experience in wage calculation, only accounting for experience within the district. 

The DPS Board of Education — under the impression that the raises would cost just over $10 million — had intended to use all applicable experience in the raises, including in the private sector. But, a report released earlier this month found Superintendent Pascal Mubenga had not provided the board with accurate information about how much the full raises based on applicable experience would cost.

Mubenga, the report found, was notified the raises would cost roughly $20 million in November 2023, two months before he raised the issue to the board.

Mubenga resigned in a closed board meeting on Feb. 7.

The board voted to continue paying the higher salaries through February, but has yet to decide if the salaries will continue or be reduced for the rest of the school year.

Over the past few months, the Durham Association of Educators organized rallies and many DPS schools have closed for multiple days because staff have called out sick to attend protests. The DAE is a local affiliate of the North Carolina Association of Educators and the National Education Association, the largest teacher's union in the country.

In North Carolina, collective bargaining between public employers and employee unions is prohibited.

DAE President Symone Kiddoo said even though the DAE does not engage in collective bargaining, the organization takes the same steps as labor unions in states where collective bargaining is allowed. These steps include figuring out the needs of public school workers and applying pressure to decision makers, she said.

Kiddoo said that collective bargaining is only as powerful as the union that is pushing behind it. 

“Even in states where collective bargaining is legal, if there's not a strong organized base of co-workers that are talking to each other every single day, organizing together every single day and trying to take action regularly, collective bargaining is means nothing,” she said

The sick-out strategy used by the DAE is in line with labor organizing, Durham community member Katie Mgongolwa said. She said the organization is using the tools available to them in a state that is antagonistic toward collective bargaining.

Margie Wescott, a DPS social studies teacher and DAE member, said she attended one of DAE’s rallies to show community for her co-workers and emphasize strength in numbers. 

“It’s a terrible time to be a teacher, but a great time to be a civics teacher,” she said. 

Many community members are worried about students falling behind in their learning due to school closures, Rocio Aguilar, a manager of instructionsaid.

She said she is a single mom and will have to figure out who can take care of her kids when she is traveling for work if DPS schools close. 

Aguilar said, while she is worried about DPS staff, the students are the most vulnerable group impacted by school closures. Children relying on school for meals and a safe place are not able to access that when schools are closed, she said. 

“DAE is representing teachers, the board is representing DPS — who's representing our kids and who's representing our parents?” she said. “Do we need to form an organization that ensures that kid's rights are being respected, because that's what the board is for.”

On Feb. 15, the DPS school board voted to create a committee to discuss a Meet and Confer policy, a process by which the school board may discuss issues with DAE and obtain input from them.

Meet and Confer differs from collective bargaining because the DAE would not be bargaining or demanding, but rather having conversations about policy, Turquoise LeJeune Parker, the DAE vice president, said.

She said if a Meet and Confer policy had been in place before the salary dispute, DAE members and educators likely would have been able to catch the budget error before it was enacted.

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“Educators are really the smartest, most amazing people in the world,” Parker said. “Our brains operate like nobody else so we see and catch things that your regular person might not catch, because we have to be in a classroom and know the nuances of 20 or 25 people and make those work together, knowing all of these intricacies.”

Parker said if the N.C. General Assembly was fully funding public schools, DPS would not be scrambling to increase employee wages. The condition of state education funding is also because of legislative efforts to expand private school vouchers by decreasing public school funding, Mgongolwa said. 

“It's put all public schools in a really hard place, so I don't even think we would be having this conversation if our schools were funded,” she said.

@Lucymarques_

@DTHCityState | city@dailytarheel.com


Lucy Marques

Lucy Marques is a 2023-24 assistant city & state editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She was previously a city & state senior writer. Lucy is a junior pursuing a double major in political science and Hispanic literatures and cultures.

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