Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
Four Clayton County high schools will celebrate their graduation ceremonies on May 24, in Atlanta. But, many employees who show up to the events will likely be doing so at their own leisure, because it is a furlough day for school system employees.
On Monday, Schools Superintendent Edmond Heatley announced that May 24 and 25 would be furlough days for employees of the district, along with three of the five days that school was out of session this past January because of a snow storm. The furloughs were put in place, in lieu of a controversial plan to ask teachers to give back $6.4 million in federal education jobs money they received last December.
The money the district expects to save through furloughs is being used to save 54 elementary school arts, music and counseling positions.
Heatley told members of the county's school board earlier this week that the May furlough days are only "post-planning" days, after the school year ends. The district's graduation schedule, which was set months ago, shows May 24 as being the day when Jonesboro, Lovejoy, Mundy's Mill and Riverdale high schools are all scheduled to hold their commencement ceremonies, at staggered times, at the Georgia Dome, in Atlanta.
Heatley did not tell the school board any graduation ceremonies are scheduled to be held on one of the furlough days. Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) President Sid Chapman said, on Tuesday, that he believes district leaders did not even know there would be a conflict until after the school board meeting.
"Do I think it's a well-thought-out plan?" Chapman asked. "No, I don't think it's a well-thought-out plan. It's always not a well-thought-out plan."
The May 24 furlough day raises questions about how the school system will handle four high school graduations when many district employees will not be required to show up for work, and why the commencements were not taken into account before furlough dates were announced. The questions are circulating as CCEA looks into the possibility of suing the school district over the furloughs.
In addition to being responsible for overseeing all school system operations, there is one, personal reason for Heatley to have known graduations were being held on May 24. School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson said the superintendent's own daughter is one of the students graduating from Jonesboro High School on that day.
School System Spokesman Charles White said the superintendent's cabinet-level discussions about the graduation conflict took place on Tuesday, but he said few final decisions have been made at this time.
"The district is aware that one of the furlough days is the second day of graduation ceremonies, and the district is making plans to address that issue," White said.
At this point, it appears May 24 will likely not end up being a district-wide furlough day, according to White. He said it will likely remain a furlough day for school system employees whose contract lengths are for less than 220 days, which includes teachers.
But, White said the likely plan is that any employees whose contract length exceeds 220, which he explained are mainly employees of the district's central office, will have to work.
"Those individuals would end up taking their furlough day at a later date, maybe at the end of that week," White said.
Adamson said she became concerned about possible conflicts with the graduations, as soon as Heatley announced when the furloughs would be implemented. She pointed out that while many teachers, in the past, have attended graduations to see students graduate, some also participate in the ceremonies, to help the events run smoothly.
"You have to remember when students march into the graduations, you'll see a line of students come in followed by a teacher, and then another line of students," Adamson said.
The school board chairperson added that she is not concerned, however, that Heatley announced dates for furloughs, and now has to make adjustments, because of a conflict with graduation ceremonies. "I'm pretty comfortable that they will make the necessary adjustments," she said.
Adamson and White said district officials believe that, despite the furloughs, teachers will likely still show up at the graduation ceremonies.
Chapman said that is not guaranteed, however. He said the district cannot "force" furloughed educators to attend the ceremony, and anger over the furloughs among teachers might lead them to skip the graduations.
"They [teachers] might, or they might not [show up], because they are not happy about this," said Chapman. He later added, "There may be some that volunteer, but it's possible they [district officials] may not have enough to do what needs to be done [during the ceremonies]."
Also, Chapman said a legal battle may be brewing between teachers and the school system over the furlough issue. He said attorneys with the Georgia Association of Educators, CCEA's parent organization, are looking into whether school employees can sue the district to fight the furlough plan.
Chapman explained that school-level representatives of the local educators' group, from almost all of the more than 60 schools in the county, showed up at a meeting of the group's governing board, and "demanded some sort of legal action be taken."
Chapman said they may have found a clause in teachers' contracts that, he explained, states that furloughs can be implemented if there is not enough money to cover pay for the school year in question. He said CCEA officials believe there is enough funding to cover teachers' pay for this school year.
"They [the district] may be in violation of the contracts, and a second review [by attorneys] is taking place," he said.
If a lawsuit is filed over the issue, Chapman said he is not sure if it will be a class-action suit, filed by several teachers, or one lawsuit, filed by CCEA on behalf of the more than 2,000 Clayton County educators who make up its membership. He also said CCEA may bring in its national parent organization, the National Education Association, to assist with any lawsuit that is filed.
If the furlough battle goes to the courts, Chapman said, it likely will not be pretty. "A legal battle is the last thing we want," he said. "It's just not good. The whole thing is just messy."