The movement behind ‘not showing up for work:’ To be an employee in Durham Public Schools

Kitora Mason, Assistant Area Manager of Durham Public Schools Northern Division of Transportation, stands outside of the Durham Public Schools Department of Transportation. February 13, 2024. Photo by Heather Diehl.

Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024

By Pragya Upreti

What began as an overpayment error in the Durham Public School system—allocating an unintended extra amount to the paychecks of several DPS employees due to an accounting error—has devolved into something far greater, impacting employees and their families on profound levels. 

DPS superintendent Pascal Mubenga resigned amid the chaos, calling the error “unintended and unprecedented” in a statement. But for many employees, having to navigate such uncertainty alongside administrative instability draws warranted frustration.

A large part of the outrage stemmed from the way the issue has been framed in the media, Kitora Mason, the Assistant Area Manager of Durham Public Schools’ Northern Division of Transportation, said.

So much of the language has centered around DPS employees “not showing up for work,” she stated. “There was misinformation from the beginning.”

In the recent weeks following the error, the conversations around its impacts have often overlooked the backbone of the DPS system—employees whose livelihoods exist from paycheck to paycheck, and many of whom have no choice but to find alternative means of putting food on the table. 

Mason held strong opinions on the movement and lack of concern by the board.

“It’s stressful. It has killed the morale of Durham Public School employees. We don’t trust them anymore. You’re messing with our livelihoods now,” she asserted. “I’ve been searching for days now to pick up a second job because I’m living from paycheck to paycheck and I can barely feed my kids. I can barely feed them.” 

Michelle Herrera-Garcia is a Family Liaison at Glenn Elementary School in Durham. She has been working for DPS since 2021. 

“If teachers, instructional assistants, front office workers, bus drivers, mechanics, or any other DPS employee doesn’t show up for work, it affects students,” she affirmed. “We know that. But what the board fails to understand is that our lives are important too. I have two jobs because I can’t afford to just have one. This is the same situation for a lot of the people I work with. We have children. We have bills to pay, and I don’t know what my paycheck is going to look like next month.”

Herrera-Garcia also expressed her frustration with media coverage of the issue, contending that although employee sit-outs may have caused disruptions, that framing neglects a deeper systemic concern.

“They’re making it seem like the bus drivers or teachers just don’t want to show up to work,” she claimed. “Mind you, bus drivers were showing up to work. They can’t move the buses if the mechanics aren’t there—and they [mechanics] were trying to prove a point by not showing up.”

Beyond this, Herrera-Garcia said there is a conversation to be had about the lack of transparency within the decision-making processes of the DPS Board of Education.

“Only certain people are being blamed for what has been going on over the past several weeks. There is such little transparency from decision-makers, and nobody is willing to accept any responsibility,” she exclaimed.

Mason echoed this sentiment as well. 

“Bus drivers were never on strike. They just didn’t have the resources to get into the gates and to their buses.”

Public education systems thrive largely because of the resilience of employees navigating a deeply complex system—one that perpetually overlooks their well-being and personal lives outside of work.

Bus mechanics, transportation managers, instructional assistants, and many faculty within DPS are more than just those titles. To wear many hats in a system that fails to recognize such a circumstance is “a great injustice,” said Mason.

“Feel our pain,” said Herrera-Garcia. “Enough of talking in circles.”

Edited by Micah McLaughlin and Ashley Santillan.