Durham school board votes to cancel classes May 16

Some Chatham County teachers want to join those in Durham (pictured) and others across the state in advocating for public education in Raleigh on May 16. The Chatham County school board has called a special meeting on Friday, May 11, to discuss possibly closing schools.
Some Chatham County teachers want to join those in Durham (pictured) and others across the state in advocating for public education in Raleigh on May 16. The Chatham County school board has called a special meeting on Friday, May 11, to discuss possibly closing schools.

The Durham school board voted Wednesday to close schools May 16 so teachers can rally for better pay and working conditions on the General Assembly's opening day.

In truth, the decision, approved by a 6-1 vote, was made for the board when teachers' requests for personal days so they could travel to Raleigh swelled to 1,028.

With more than 40 percent of the district's teachers taking off, the board agreed it could not operate schools.

'We're going to have to close schools on May 16," said school board member Steve Unruhe, a retired math teacher.

So, board members supported the administration's option, one of three, to close school and declare May 16 an optional teacher work day. The other options were keeping schools open and closing them three hours early.

School board Chairman Mike Lee said once more than 1,000 teachers requested personal days, he knew that it would be difficult to open schools.

"There's no other option but to close schools," Lee said. "We won't have enough teachers to safely administer schools, it was an obvious choice."

The board's decision to declare May 16 a teacher work day means teachers will not have to take a personal day. But the district's classified employees like bus drivers will lose a day's pay and child nutrition will forfeit about $100,000 in federal reimbursement for meals.

Closing schools presents numerous other challenges such as how to reschedule Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams for high schools students.

And then there are working parents who must find day care, and low-income students for whom school breakfast and lunch might be the only meals they receive.

Superintendent Pascal Mubenga said the administration preferred the option that would have closed schools three hours early because it would allow teachers to attend the rally in Raleigh, but also ensure students are cared for, bus drivers get paid and students could take exams.

He said DPS is working with N.C. Central University so that students in Hillside High School's IB program can take mandatory exams on the university campus. AP exams will be taken on the scheduled make up day, May 23.

'Not sustainable'

Dozens of teachers, parents, students and others who supported closing schools spoke passionately about state budget cuts to public education and the impact on students, teachers and other school workers.

"The path of our public schools are on right now is absolutely not sustainable and certainly not equitable for students, teachers, parents or our community," said Joy Harrell the parent of three DPS high school students.

Tamara Vanie, a Glenn Elementary School parent, said she supports closing schools May 16 even though it will create a hardship for her family.

"It's going to hurt me," Vanie said. "It's going to hurt my kids. It's a sacrifice but a necessary sacrifice."

Jaclyn Turnwald, a Middle College High School teacher, said the day off will allow the entire community to come together to advocate for schools and children.

"We're united with our school board and teachers with parents and with our students and we can go send a message to the General Assembly that our kids need more," Turnwald said.

Forte-Brown opposed

School board member Minnie Forte-Brown was the lone board member to vote against closing schools, warning that there will be a backlash from the Republican-led General Assembly like there was when Durham educators joined those in Guilford County to lobby for better teacher pay.

"We took hits for that, and we're going to take hits on May 16 because those people who say they're standing with you may not be there," Forte-Brown said. "It's going to take North Carolina to change this. We're going to have to rally to get support from other districts."

Forte-Brown also read a statement from the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, which supports teacher advocacy but opposes the district closing schools.

At a rally before the school board meeting, the Durham Association of Educators shared the names of more than a dozen churches and civic organizations that have offered to partner with the school district to provide lunches for students who need them on May 16. Several organizations pledged to send food home with students home May 15 to help them get through the new teacher workday.

"So, what we're doing is going to Raleigh on that day to fight for public education, but we're also making sure that our community is going to hold us down here," said Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators, a teacher advocacy organization that organized the Durham teacher walkout on May 16.

Educators from other school districts from across the state are also planning to travel to Raleigh that day to show support for public education.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645
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