1 in 3 Durham teachers headed to Raleigh May 16. Will DPS cancel school?

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 school board stopped short of canceling classes May 16 in response to a probable absence of more than 800 teachers who are taking personal leave to rally for public education on the General Assembly's opening day.

But the board told Superintendent Pascal Mubenga to plan for thousands of students who will likely be without teachers May 16, including nearly 500 high school students scheduled to take Advanced Placement 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.

"This is not an easy decision to make," Mubenga said. "I ask the board to trust the administration and give us time to figure out what's the best course. We definitely support our teachers. We respect that they are going to advocate for all of us, but at the same time, we also have the responsibility for 33,000 students that we have to deal with."

The administration is expected to deliver its plan Wednesday, May 2, during a special board meeting.

The decision to ask the administration to develop a plan for May 16 was approved on a 5-2 vote.

School board members Matt Sears and member Natalie Beyer voted against the move, wanting to instead vote on closing schools May 16 in order to give parents three week's notice.

"I'm supporting a vote tonight to close the district on May 16 but I have questions and I do want the district to talk to us about what are these major ramifications, what are the big negatives because I haven't heard any yet, other than the responsibility we have to our families and our community," Sears said.

But School board Chairman Mike Lee said he needs to see a contingency plan for closing schools and one for keeping them open with more than one-third of the district's 2,400 teachers missing.

"That's a difficult number to run a district on," Lee said. "I need to feel comfortable enough that everyone who needs services will have services or care before I can be comfortable with saying let's close the schools."

The bottom line, regardless of what happens at the May 2 meeting,is that parents should have a backup plan for their children May 16 because the likelihood is slim that DPS will open schools with so many teachers absent.

Nearly two dozen teachers from various schools across the district went before the board to tell them how many teachers in their building have requested a personal leave day to go to Raleigh. Several teachers reported that more than half of the staff is taking leaving on May 16. At Southwest Elementary School, 99 percent of the teachers, nearly the entire staff, will be off May 16..

Bryan Proffitt, president of the Durham Association of Educators, said the group will help the district in serving families burdened by the closure of schools.

"We're going to keep organizing," Proffitt said. "Our kids have been suffering for a long time and we've been suffering for a long time and we know its a fight, but we're going to keep organizing."

Before the school board meeting, several dozen teachers, parents and other supporters of closing schools gathered outside of the Fuller Administration Building for a news conference.

Carlos Perez, a social studies teacher a Jordan High School, said that as a new teacher he is concerned about the assault on public education coming from state lawmakers.

"I think we've finally reached a boiling point where folks are ready to get together and see what we can do about changing this problem," Perez said.

Crystal Rogers, a Southwest Elementary parent and president of the school's PTA, said May 16 isn't about teachers walking out on students.

"This action is them standing up for our students and with our students," Rogers said.

She said she supports teachers as long as students can take required exams and those students who have social service needs receive them.

While many in the community appear to support teachers and their plans to go to Raleigh to advocate for public education, one political action committee questioned the closure of schools, which would force students to miss instructional time.

Jovonia Lewis, interim chairwoman of the Education Committee of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, said the Education Committee supports teachers standing up to lawmakers but cannot support the school board preemptively closing schools.

"We feel that DPS can stand in unity without having to also make the decision to close the schools, putting students at risk of their educational endeavors whether it be instructional time or testing dates that are predetermined by collegiate boards," Lewis said.

The request for the school board to close schools May 16, overshadowed the release of the Superintendent Pascal Mubenga's budget proposal for the 2018-19 school year.

Mubenga is requesting a $432.9 million budget that includes a $22.8 million pass through to charter schools attended by Durham County Students.

Greg Childress: 919-419-6645, @gchild6645