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Number of DPS teachers taking May 16 off nears 1,000; school board to weigh options

Teachers rally in front of the Fuller Administration Building to ask the Durham school board to cancel classes May 16 so they can go to Raleigh to advocate for public education.
Teachers rally in front of the Fuller Administration Building to ask the Durham school board to cancel classes May 16 so they can go to Raleigh to advocate for public education.

The number of Durham teachers taking May 16 off to advocate for public education in Raleigh on the General Assembly's opening day has swelled to nearly 1,000, which is about 41 percent of the district's 2,400 teachers.

With so many teachers taking a personal day, it will be difficult for Durham Public Schools to open, but School board Chairman Mike Lee said it's not impossible.

Lee said the district is looking at one scenario — among others such as making the day an optional teacher work day — that calls for a half-day of school May 16.

But that would still make opening some schools such as Southwest and E.K. Powe elementary schools a nonstarter because nearly all teachers there plan to take the day off.

"We're trying to figure out what that means," Lee said of closing for a half day.

The school board will consider all options at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Fuller Administration Building, 511 Cleveland St.

Board members queried Tuesday all said they support teachers in their advocacy but want to see what the administration brings to the table.

Board member Bettina Umstead said she is leaning toward a vote on closing schools because "I don't know if we can open schools with a thousand people missing."

School board member Matt Sears wanted to announce last week that schools would be closed to give parents more time to plan.

"I'm still sticking by that," Sears said. "I'm always open to hearing other proposals, but the last I saw the number of teachers planning to take a personal day, it was over 900. The actions of our teachers are driving us to close schools."

Board member Steve Unruhe said the board and administration must try to minimize the impact on students and their parents.

"That may not be possible, particularly if we have to close schools," Unruhe said.

Closing schools presents the district with numerous challenges such as how to reschedule Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) exams for high schools students. Classified workers such as bus drivers who are paid an hourly wage will miss a full day's pay if schools are closed.

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.

"Teachers are very aware of the impact on students, families and other employees and do not take that lightly at all," said Unruhe, a retired DPS teacher.

The board told Superintendent Pascal Mubenga last week to develop a plan for thousands of students who will likely be without teachers, including nearly 500 high school students scheduled to take the AP and IB exams. Mubenga and his staff will consider calendar and testing issues, food and child-care concerns for students home for the day, pay for employees such as custodians who are paid by the hour and would miss a full day's work and other challenges it would face if schools close.

Meanwhile, members of the Durham Association of Educators (DAE) and other members of the community have held two community meetings over the past four days to discuss ways to help reduce the impact of schools being closed May 16 on students and parents.

A third meeting is planned for May 10, from 6 to 7:30 p.m., at First Calvary Baptist Church,1311 Morehead Ave.

Bryan Proffit, president of the DAE, said educators have been driven to take a personal day off because of the actions of the Republican-led General Assembly, which he says is trying to dismantle public education.

"We take it personally that they've taken the hardest job on the planet and made it absolutely unsustainable for the majority of those of us who love the profession and our students so deeply," Proffitt told The Herald-Sun last week.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645