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BOE opts for furloughs over federal money

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Curt Yeomans

cyeomans@news-daily.com

Clayton County educators will get to keep the federal jobs stimulus money they received four months ago. But in a bit of maneuvering by the school system, they will still have to give back money, in order to keep some of the district's programs intact.

In a sudden change of direction from recent budget discussions, the school board voted 5-2, on Monday, to furlough educators for five days this spring, rather than institute a controversial plan to make the employees give back a total of $6.4 million worth of federal jobs bill money they received last December.

The district mandated, at the end of 2010, that employees had to participate in five days of professional development, in exchange for the federal money.

The board voted 6-1, Monday, to use the approximately $6.4 million savings expected to be generated by the furloughs, to save elementary school art, music and counseling programs from the chopping block.

That means a total of 54 positions that had been facing elimination are now safe from budget cuts.

"What this simply means is the [federal] Ed Jobs money that we spoke of at the last board meeting [on April 12] is off the table," Superintendent Edmond Heatley told educators during the meeting. "This is five furlough days, for this fiscal year. If the board approves it ... that means we will take up to 12 months, if you decide [that] taking it out of the remaining checks this [fiscal] year would create a financial hardship ...

"You would still have to do your five days of professional development, because this money [from the furloughs] has nothing to do with that [federal] money."

The school district will use three of the days that it was shut down in January, because of a snow storm, as furlough days. The remaining furlough days will be implemented on May 24 and 25, which were slated to be "post-planning" days, according to Heatley.

As a result of the board's approval of the new plan, educators will have to give back the pay they received for the three snow days in January, that are now being classified as "furlough days."

The catch is they now lose five work days, and five days of pay, to furloughs.

Several educators decried the move as virtually being no different from taking back the federal money from school system employees.

"It's the same thing, they just called it something else," said Clayton County Education Association President Sid Chapman.

The entire presentation on how the furloughs days would be implemented led to confused looks, and mumblings of "what?" and "huh?" from many sitting in the audience at the school board meeting. Even School Board Member Trinia Garrett told the superintendent she did not fully understand how this plan would work.

"I don't think the audience understood what you were saying, because I don't understand what you're saying," Garrett told Heatley.

What also prompted confusion among the educators was a lack of clarity about how the district will take the money out of their paychecks. The superintendent's explanation was not clear on when the money would be taken. He also did not explain how educators could ask for the repayments to be spread out over a 12-month period.

Heatley talked briefly with Chapman immediately after the board meeting, but then left the meeting room before reporters could question him about the furlough plan.

The lack of details raised questions and concerns among those affected, such as Janice Scott, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Sequoyah Middle School. Scott asked School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson, after the meeting, how she could ask for deductions to be spread out over the course of a year. Adamson was not able to provide definitive answers to all of Scott's questions, however.

"That would be a problem for all educators," said Scott afterward. "That's a big chunk coming out of our pay ... I just cannot imagine how that is not a hardship for all educators."

The solution to how to save the elementary school programs in their entirety, which was something the school board had pushed for through discussions on reducing the district's budget by $49 million, left several people who attended the meeting unhappy.

While three elementary school programs were saved from the chopping block, two other elementary school programs, physical education, and in-school system suspensions, are still facing cuts. The physical education program is slated to lose 24 positions, while the in-school suspension program is slated for total elimination.

Garrett and fellow School Board Member Jessie Goree tried to amend a motion to keep the elementary school art, music and counseling programs in tact, by adding physical education to the list, but their amendment was defeated in a 4-3 vote by the school board.

Chapman said he has serious concerns about the decision to furlough educators this spring. He said he had been under the impression -- based on discussions Heatley had, publicly, with the school board a week ago -- that any furloughs being considered would not be implemented until the 2011-2012 school year.