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Durham school board considers new $8M salary proposal for next year as protests continue

Raleigh News and Observer
A consultant the Durham school board hired to help sort out the pay issues wreaking havoc on the district has proposed throwing out the current methods for calculating pay.

The new plan is for classified staff, the group of employees whose pay yo-yoed after budget mistakes were made in the rollout of raises.

  • For a few months, those raises resulted in significantly higher pay for many of the district’s lowest-paid workers, including cafeteria staff, instructional assistants, physical therapists, bus mechanics and custodians.

  • But after overspending by millions of dollars, the school board reset 1,875 workers’ pay to last year’s levels and added a flat 11% raise. These paychecks started in March.

  • What the change means: 74% are making less than they were promised last year, and 35% are making less than they were promised in January.

Workers say they are on the brink.

“I have witnessed personally five employees leaving in less than a week,” Riverside High School instructional assistant Quentin Headen said.

The Durham Association of Educators protested before Thursday night’s school board meeting.

They called for a return to the pay promised last year, including backpay for any missed months.

No more steps?

Kerry Crutchfield — who for decades led the finance department at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools and is now serving as Durham’s comptroller — presented a proposed solution to the school board Thursday night.

Durham has historically calculated pay for its classified staff in a step system, but he recommended the schedules be thrown out and replaced:

  • What is a step system? In Durham, a year of experience counts as a step. Step systems are drawn up each budget year showing pay rates for every step in every position. Positions are grouped in grades.

  • But … The increments by which pay changes at each step vary widely, from nothing to 0.26% for the district’s lowest-paying jobs, and hovering around 1.5% a year in others. “No consistency whatsoever,” Crutchfield said.

  • Why? That’s partly due to compression associated with raising everyone’s minimum pay to $15 an hour.

Crutchfield said sticking with last year’s salaries was “never going to be equitable,” but achieving equity was “never going to be easy or inexpensive,” since the state doesn’t offer enough money to pay competitively.

Like many large school districts, Durham County supplements pay provided by the state for school employees.

“This is the reality of Durham and how expensive it is to live here,” school board member Natalie Beyer said. “North Carolina needs to pay educators and classified staff better. This is all on the state, and there’s always going to be a limit to what we can do locally.”

Crutchfield’s plan would add $8 million to next year’s budget.

  • He proposed a standardized minimum and maximum for each pay grade. Those two numbers are 40% apart when they don’t bump up against state-set maximums.

  • Lingering question: Pay along that scale would still range based on experience, but would be calculated with a yet-to-be-decided percentage above the minimum. Additional percentages could be tacked on to reward those with a decade or more experience.

The school board wants significantly more details before making a decision.

“I’m not sure that staff currently who want to respond to our proposal can understand where they fall,” Chair Bettina Umstead said. “How can we get it as clear as possible?”

“It will be confusing no matter what we do,” Crutchfield cautioned with a smile.

He’ll return in two weeks with more data.

  • Some guarantees: No employee’s pay would dip below what they are being paid now. As a reminder, that’s 11% more than last year. Some jobs would get up to 18.5% more than last year.

  • State-funded increase: There’s an additional 3% increase programmed by state legislators that would be tacked on top.

What’s next?

Ultimately, whatever the school board decides is more of a suggestion than a decision.

The Durham County Board of Commissioners has the final say-so. Commissioners are considering raising property taxes to cover the cost.

Dates to watch

  • The next school board meeting is on April 11. The interim superintendent will present her proposed budget and the public can offer input.

  • The school board will continue talking things over April 25 and May 9.

  • The county manager presents her recommended budget May 13.

  • County commissioners scheduled their final budget hearing for May 28. The public can provide comments.

  • Final approval is set for June 10.

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