More Durham schools close for ‘Day of Protest’

EK Powe elementary school in Durham, NC. Source: Durham Association of Educators.

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  • Under state law in North Carolina it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a public employee to strike.

Seven more Durham County Schools closed Monday after the Durham Association of Educators sent a letter to Durham Public Schools saying that too many teachers would be calling out as part of a “Day of Protest.” The move came days after 12 other schools were forced to close on Jan. 31 in a similarly organized absence from work.

North Carolina is a Right-to-Work state, meaning there are no “closed shops,” union control, or requirements that employees join a union. Under state law in North Carolina, it is a Class 1 misdemeanor for a public employee to strike, and groups organizing a strike could face liabilities for the costs associated with such collective “sick-outs” or “walk-outs.”

However, a photo was shared with Carolina Journal by employees of Durham Public Schools, who did not wish to be identified, which raises questions about when these lines are crossed. The employees report that signups like this one are being circulated through the schools among employees led in part by members of the Durham Association of Educators. They report feeling “bullied” to participate, and worry that the schools closed as a result actually serve some of the district’s most vulnerable families.

Among the seven schools closed on Monday is Sandy Ridge Elementary and EK Powe Elementary, both serving high percentages of economically disadvantaged students. Sandy Ridge students are 71% economically disadvantaged and in recent testing scored 65% of grade level proficiency in math and 48% of grade level proficiency in reading.

Bethesda Elementary is also closed, and has 59% economically disadvantaged students. Just 39% of Bethesda students are proficient on Math End of Grade tests, and only 31% in reading.

“While North Carolina public employees are permitted to organize and join employee associations, state law makes clear that strikes by public employees are ‘illegal and against the public policy of this State,” said Jessica Thompson, general counsel for the John Locke Foundation. “This legal prohibition against strikes applies to full- or part-time state employees, as well as employees of counties, cities, and towns in North Carolina.”

The organized “Day of Protest” stems from a payroll error lasting from July to December of 2023, leading to some employees being overpaid for six months.  The school system has secured the money to make sure those employees do not have to return the overpayment. However, the employees and the school system are in conflict over changes in the formula for calculating raises going forward; the new formula would only count years of experience in the school system, not in private industry.

Friday’s school board meeting did not produce a solution and the members decided to delay debate on the conflict.

In a message posted to social media over the weekend, the Durham Association of Educators wrote:

“District employees have lost trust in the DPS administration, and remain frustrated by the lack of transparency with the district’s finances. What DPS can afford to pay its employees going forward remains a mystery. It was evident during Friday’s Board meeting that the majority of the Board agrees.”

Other schools closed Monday in the Day of Protest include Morehead Montessori, Carrington Middle, Durham School of the Arts, EK Powe Elementary, and Little River K-8 School.