Three new and one returning Chapel Hill-Carrboro school board members were sworn in on Thursday. Judge Joe Buckner administered the oath of office to Rani Dasi, Pat Heinrich, Margaret Samuels, and Annetta Streater.
The newcomers wasted no time before shaking up the board. Within minutes of taking their seats, Dasi, Heinrich and Samuels formed a coalition to elect James Barrett as the new board chair, outvoting the more senior members who favored vice chair Andrew Davidson.
Michelle Brownstein, who backed Davidson, tried to sway her peers. She cited the loss of institutional knowledge after long-serving board members Jamezetta Bedford and Mike Kelley completed their terms last month.
“The seven of us find ourselves in an unprecedented situation. The chair seat is vacant due to retirement and three of us have just been sworn in and are working very hard to successfully jump on this moving bus,” Brownstein told the board. “I want to caution us to avoid tearing down something of value until we are certain we have something of value to replace it with.”
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Brownstein touted Davidson’s experience serving as vice chair under Kelley during the past year, calling it an apprenticeship. She asked the board to consider a facilitated discussion to help unify the new group, and ended with this warning: “We all need to be very, very careful. The power of three plus one is four, and that’s the majority.”
The trio of newcomers used that math to their advantage. Barrett, Dasi, Heinrich and Samuels won out against Brownstein, Davidson, and Streater. The board came together to unanimously elect Streater vice chair. She is the longest-serving member, having joined the board in 2006.
The board also voted unanimously to approve a plan to boost pay for nearly 300 classified employees, including bus drivers, custodians, IT technicians, financial advisers and teaching assistants who work with special needs students.
The pay increase is based in part on a consultant’s recommendations to help the district retain skilled employees, and also motivated by a push to bring minimum pay rates in line with Orange County’s living wage guidelines mandating at least $12.76 an hour.
Assistant Superintendent Todd LoFrese said it’s important to examine pay scales for administrators and non-teaching staff because those are often overlooked by state leaders.
“The state looks at those positions last, and so we have to be cognizant of looking out for those employees and being sure we’re taking care of them,” said LoFrese. “Over time, when you look at what’s been provided by the state, it’s pretty dismal. We need to be doing that and owning that locally.”
Eugene Farrar is a custodian who has been campaigning for a living wage for school employees. He told the board many of his peers cannot afford to live in the district where they work.
“I hope we will take a look at their situation, and see what we can do to enhance that, so that maybe one day they will be able to come and live in Chapel Hill,” said Farrar. “If we bring the bottom up, everybody can live a decent life.”
The increase will affect 37 percent of the district’s classified employees, at a total cost of $271,185 over the next year.