Durham County School Board members last week unanimously approved $1,000 retention bonuses for about 4,900 full-time and permanent part-time employees.

“It’s a way of providing additional funding for those who were with us during 2020 and 2021, and that are still with us in 2022,” Paul D. LeSieur, the DPS chief financial officer, told the board members.

LeSieur noted that not all of the public school system’s 5,500 employees were eligible for the bonus, including substitute teachers.

The board members also approved an analysis of the bonus plan to try and ensure as much of the $1,000 is deposited into employee accounts and that 22 employees who are retiring next month receive the funds.

But board members acknowledged that the bonuses did not begin to address the challenges teachers and staffers have encountered over the past 18 months as a consequence of the pandemic.

Last November, after the school system shut down in March due to the pandemic and switched to remote instruction, school board members approved a plan that would allow a select group of students to return to their classrooms to resume in-person learning. The plan was slated to start in January and continue for the remainder of the school year.

But, following a spike in COVID-19 cases, the school board’s conflicted 4-3 vote against bringing students back in person mirrored the concerns and uncertainties voiced by parents and teachers. County residents submitted 447 comments on school officials’ recommendation to allow pre-Kindergartners and elementary students to return to their classrooms two days a week. Of the hundreds of public comments the board received, opponents of reopening outnumbered supporters about 5 to 1.

The coronavirus upended the partial reopening with an increase in cases across the county, prompting board members to announce in January that the schools would continue online-only learning for the remainder of the academic year.

By mid-March, emotions ran so high that Mayor Steve Schewel issued a statement condemning violent threats targeting members of the county’s board of education after the board narrowly approved students’ return to classrooms.

Time—and a decrease in pandemic infection rates owing to a vaccine—has not fully quelled some parents’ anger.

“Shame on you, School Board, for not listening to the Durham Association of Educators this past year,” fumed one resident in a comment submitted to the board before last week’s work session. “They said loud and clear that if you open schools, disaster would happen! Well look at how much disaster has befallen our community now.”

“I’m so cognizant of how hard our folks are working and how stressful everything that we’ve added as COVID precautions, and outdoor eating, and the stress of keeping everybody safe and not having enough bus drivers,” said board member Natalie Beyer during an October 7 school board work session. 

Beyer said she hopes the bonus “is the first down payment” and that the board might be able to do more “possibly through federal funding,” or with the county commissioners sharing their hazard pay dollars, or even with assistance from the business community.

Board Chair Bettina Umstead supported the retention bonus plan, but she also pointed to the need for the public school system to “promote a culture where people will want to come here,”

For Umstead, that includes an increase in pay, but also “fostering a culture where people feel appreciated.”

Board Vice-Chair Mike Lee’s concerns about how the bonus funds would be taxed and whether school employees would actually end up with $1,000 in their accounts, led to the board’s decision to call for analysis to determine if a minimal amount of taxes could be deducted from the funds, “to make sure $1,000 hits everyone’s account.”

The school’s board decision received mixed reviews among a handful of teachers and staffers.

In a comment submitted to the school board, Rachel Wells, a representative of the Teamsters Union, thanked the board for using the federal funds to provide a $1,000 retention bonus for its employees, but she also proposed modifying the eligibility requirements for teachers and other full-time staffers who are scheduled to retire in December, or prior to  January 22, 2022.

“If employees had known about the bonus prior to filing for their retirement they may have decided to wait [to retire],” she said.

Dr. Alvera Lesane, the DPS assistant superintendent of human resources, later noted that “a few teachers had rescinded their retirement until February 1 to receive the bonus.”

While noting that the federal funds had been earmarked as a retention incentive, she added, “that doesn’t mean we can’t make it work and go back and see what we can do.”

Another Durham resident, Al Keen, is not impressed with the retention bonus. Ironically, he shared similar sentiments expressed by the school board members last week.

A $1,000 bonus, Keen said, “is a slap in the face for teachers especially when surrounding counties are offering more. Teachers and staff deserve more.”

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Follow Durham Staff Writer Thomasi McDonald on Twitter or send an email to tmcdonald@indyweek.com.