“Find the money”: DPS Board of Education facing record high pressure
BY LUCIA HARRINGTON
Rain drizzled from the dark sky onto hundreds of umbrellas, but the energy emanating from the crowd was far from dismal. Speakers in the center orchestrated the rally, each declaration punctuated with tremendous applause, animated affirmations, and the thunderous beat of drums.
This rally was organized by the Durham Association of Educators, and occurred directly before the DPS Board of Education meeting on January 25, 2024. It was just paces away from the room where the School Board sat in closed session. Demands included, but were not limited to: transparency and accountability from the board, and a seat at the table- not to mention fair pay. There were so many staff, parents, and students present that many nearby parking lots were full.
“We need strong and immediate action from the board. We want a seat at the table to ensure that a crisis of this magnitude never happens again. The only way to do that is to commit to dramatically more transparency, accountability, and worker voice in decision making going forward,” DAE president Symone Kiddo declared during the rally.
The crisis she is referring to is the accounting error DPS made in October, where raises were miscalculated during a policy change prompted by a salary study. It meant to make classified employee positions, and paychecks, more equitable and competitive. The error caused years of experience outside of DPS to be factored differently, and resulted in what DPS called an “overpayment”. However, employees were expecting these changes to be permanent, so many quit second jobs and made other financial decisions on the assumption that they would be getting paid as they had been promised. Without warning, in early January, emails were sent out to classified employees telling them that these raises would be reversed for their next paycheck.
“Classified staff are telling us that they feel that years of their life are being erased. 200-300 workers called out sick last week in protest,” Kiddoo said. “Students and staff are suffering. And of course, those who feel it the most are working class families and students of color.”
Other speakers at the rally included employees and students; everything was translated into Spanish. At 6:30, the people moved toward the building, expecting the open session to begin. They waited for another 35 minutes. At some point, a cry went up: there was a tow truck, and it was towing cars in the lot.
“Start the meeting!” the crowd chanted. “This is what democracy looks like!”
When the doors were finally opened, and the public meeting commenced, the board started with their usual procedures. But the assembly was impatient, shouting for them to get to the point.
“If we’re not able to move [through the agenda], we don’t want to make decisions that remove people from this room. I don’t want to do that,” Board chair Bettina Umstead stated, after people in the outside crowd jeered at Superintendent Mubenga during his update.
During the agenda review and approval, the board members motioned and approved to waive the policy that requires them to follow the pre-set agenda. Next, they approved additional agenda items: a budget amendment, and classified staff compensation discussion. Then, the general public comment began.
“Mistrust, worry, despair, detachment, anger. Classified employees are exhausted from living in a two week period of fight or flight,” physical therapist Christie Clem asserted.
This was reflected in the comments, questions, and declarations made by 44 speakers that night. It was a record for public attendance at a DPS BOE monthly meeting. They ranged from janitors and physical therapists, to parents and students. Some spoke in Spanish with a translator. Emotions were high, and many times the room got loud. All of the speakers called the school board to honor the dignity of their classified staff.
PHOTO CREDIT: LUCIA HARRINGTON
Outside of the room where the DPS Board of Education convened in closed session, crowds of people stood with homemade signs like this one. They called on DPS to treat their employees with dignity.
PHOTO CREDIT: LUCIA HARRINGTON
This message was projected onto the building in which the meeting was being held. Directly underneath, people huddled by the windows- there was no more space inside.
PHOTO CREDIT: LUCIA HARRINGTON
Inside the meeting room, 44 speakers spoke during general public comment. There were high tensions: at one point. the 3 security guards stationed behind the podium had to be told to "stand down" after one speaker refused to leave.
“Are we worth a million dollars to you?” asked instructional assistant Quentin Headen. “Aren’t the children worth a million dollars, and more?”
When the budget amendment came around, the board approved to take $4,539,483.55 from their funds in order to pay affected employees the amount they were promised, but only until the end of January. This means that employees will keep the money they were overpaid in error. However, there were no policies set for going forward. The board members seemed to be at odds with each other.
“Tonight I was like, ‘let me prepare’, cause it might be like the French Revolution, ‘off with your heads’, right? And, so, maybe it is!” Alexandra Valladares exclaimed.
Other board members seemed uncomfortable, and later, Bettina Umstead cut Valladares off. She grimaced as Valladares spoke of a ‘second motion’, something none of the other board members mentioned. Nevertheless, the only thing made clear by the board was that the future is unclear. Lewis proposed holding later meetings to create a new salary schedule. Chavez and Beyers both supported the idea of holding later meetings to find solutions.
“We are now turning to an intermediate solution, and ultimately, we need a long term solution,” Chavez stated.
The last motion was proposed by Lewis, and stated that no affected employee would receive less money in their 23-24 salary than they did in 22-23, and on top of that, would receive a 4% salary increase, beginning in February 2024. It passed unanimously. However, the motion doesn’t indicate that employees will keep recent raises, because the 22-23 fiscal year came before the policy changes.
“We are currently calling on the DPS Board of Education to pass a policy that codifies worker voice,” Kiddoo had demanded earlier.
This demand was not met. Board members expressed their enthusiasm for including the community in discussion, but at no point was any formal process for “a seat at the table” established.
“We expect that the next few weeks and months of budget conversations will focus on transparency and accountability,” Kiddoo had emphasized just hours earlier.
This demand was also not met. Statements by many board members were confusing, with so much legal jargon and double negatives that heads were spinning. Some seemed at a loss for words, despite having weeks knowing this was coming. Currently, the DPS Board of Education is working with a lawyer, in an ongoing investigation, and planning on meeting at a later time. Classified employees are still uncertain of what future paychecks will look like. Without change, it seems likely that issues will remain into the future. As Headen summarized nicely,
“If this continues, our system will crumble and fail.”