DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Durham Public Schools Board of Education met for hours Monday as the district continues to be embroiled in a pay dispute with its employees.
After the meeting, DPS Board of Education Chair Bettina Umstead came out and read a statement apologizing for the pay confusion and promising that employees would be able to keep the pay they received in 2023 as well as the higher pay rate for January 2024.
Monday's announcement was the first time the school district has made any tangible concession in the dispute.
The dispute centers around what the district described as accidental overpayments. Employees have said those payments were correct and what they expected to receive after the district issued raises based on relevant work experience. However, a recent DPS policy change with how relevant work experience was calculated caused many employees to lose those raises.
Some employees were concerned they were going to have to pay back the money they'd been paid over the last few months. Umstead's announcement means that will not be the case.
It remains unclear what will happen after January. More specifics about that deal will be talked about in Thursday's scheduled board meeting.
"We are so sorry for the harm that's been caused," Umstead said. "I want to be clear, we value each and every one of our employees and we are working hard to resolve this issue."
Umstead said the school board would be bringing in outside help to get answers on what happened and how to move forward.
"Our board will be retaining an outside financial consultant to review every aspect of this matter. We, as a board, have also requested our attorneys investigate this situation to understand what happened so the board can take all actions required to properly rectify the issue."
The Durham Association of Educators (DAE), which plans to hold a rally Thursday on this topic, is hopeful after getting the guarantee that staff wouldn't have to payback their 2023 paychecks.
"We're very excited," DAE President Symone Kiddoo said. "That feels like a good first step. It feels like a very big win."
DAE said it plans to continue to push for more of a commitment from the district to having a worker's voice at the table when financials are being discussed.
"We would like to hear more of a commitment to having a worker voice at the table -- about how we move forward with financial transparency. We didn't hear any commitments to that. And I know people are really interested to know how they can participate in what happens with their paychecks," Kiddoo said.
Before the DPS announcement Monday, Superintendent Pascal Mubenga sat down with about 40 district mechanics. Media was not allowed inside the meeting, but from outside the room ABC11 crews heard raised voices at times.
Participants in the meeting declined to comment afterward, but several indicated that the meeting was positive.
Last week, some employees walked out of work, leaving schools understaffed and parents searching for answers.
"A lot of parents are struggling because we don't know what's going to happen," said Emily Coleman, the mother of two students at Mangum Elementary. Emily confirmed to ABC11 that the district sent her a message Sunday referring her to the parent portal app for updates on busing on Monday.
Emily says the whole ordeal's been confusing and deflating for district parents, but says she's been spared from the worst because her kids' bus driver, Crystal Freeman, has continued to show up every morning. She said that gesture moved her to tears last week.
"The fact that she was showing up when no one else was makes me feel like she genuinely cares," said Emily.
But she also acknowledged the ongoing pay dispute -- now entering its second week -- has created more questions than answers and makes her nervous about her kids' future.
"It's hard, because they've already been through a rough time with the pandemic, and we're just getting back from that and now we're dealing with this," she said.
The dispute is also creating new, unforeseen problems. ABC11 obtained a notice sent to parents of Jordan High School students by the Parent Teacher Student Association that asked for volunteers to come collect garbage because no custodians were working. DPS confirmed the communication to ABC11 Sunday night.
DPS employee Valerie McNeil calls the ordeal a mess of the district's making.
"A lot of people have literally quit second jobs because they thought they would be making more money," McNeil said. "They've invested in homes and cars and now they don't know how they're going to pay for it."
On Thursday, ABC11 met McNeil, a 14-year DPS employee currently living out of her car due to financial woes she attributes to changes in her check. DPS has not yet responded to our questions about Valerie.
On Sunday, we reconnected with the instructional assistant ahead of Monday's DPS meeting. She said she's not optimistic.
"To go to the people who have done this to you and get no resolve, I'm not expecting anything, honestly," McNeil said.