By Curt Yeomans
A conflict between teacher furloughs and Clayton County high school graduations has been resolved, according to a furlough schedule posted on the school system's web site.
When the furloughs were initially approved by the school board on April 18, Superintendent Edmond Heatley included May 24 as one of the days when school system employees were to be furloughed. It is also the day when students at four high schools -- including the superintendent's daughter -- were scheduled to graduate.
The conflict raised questions about how the furlough day would be handled. But now, the May 24 furlough day -- for teachers at least -- has been changed to a day in January when the district was shut down because of a massive snow storm.
Three snow-storm days were already on the list of retroactive furlough days. Employees were paid for those days, and they will now have to give that money back.
"We didn't change a day," said Heatley, after a school board meeting on Monday. "What happened was, I used some general days when I was standing there [on April 18], and now we've gone out and published a specific plan [with slightly different dates] ... Just pull it up on the web site, and it shows who gets what days."
The furloughs were put in place instead of an earlier, unpopular proposal to require employees to repay $6.4 million in federal jobs bill money they received last December. The furloughs are part of the district's $49 million budget-reduction plan, and have been used to save elementary school art, music and counseling programs.
The change comes as a May 3 deadline approaches for teachers to apply to spread out their repayments of furlough-day money to the district over a 12-month period. A form that employees have to use to spread out the repayments has been posted on the school system's web site, www.clayton.k12.ga.us/.
The form, which was written by Chief Financial Officer Denise Thompson, states that employees have to return it to their supervisors after they fill it out. "If you fail to make an election from the above choices by May 3rd, the default action for repayment will be the deduction of the amount owed to Clayton County Public Schools from the remaining 2010-2011 payroll checks," Thompson wrote in the form.
In addition, new information has come to light about how transportation employees will be furloughed on a rolling basis, possibly creating delays in when students are picked up to be taken to school every day. Heatley said bus drivers and bus monitors will be furloughed on a rolling basis, with several bus drivers out every day, from now until the end of the school year.
He also said mechanics and transportation department office staff, who have S-endorsed Commercial Driver's Licenses, will be required to drive school bus routes to fill in for furloughed bus drivers. "That's nothing we wouldn't do any other time," he said.
One bus driver, who is not being identified because drivers were not authorized by district officials to speak with the media about the issue, said the furloughs, on top of normal driver absences on any given day, would likely lead to students waiting a little longer at their bus stops.
The bus driver said transportation department employees were informed by Chief Operations Officer Cephus Jackson that 36 drivers, and eight monitors, will be furloughed every day until the last day of school.
"We will have an average of 50 drivers out every day till the end of the school year," the bus driver said. "Imagine the problems this will cause our students and teachers, as buses will be running late every morning and afternoon trying to deliver the students home ..."
Also, a push among educators to sue the school system over the furlough issue, ran into a roadblock on Monday. Clayton County Education Association (CCEA) President Sid Chapman said he was informed by attorneys from the group's state and national parent organizations, the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE), and the National Education Association (NEA), that efforts to find grounds for legal action against the district over the furloughs have not been successful.
He said GAE and NEA attorneys have reviewed the contracts of Clayton educators, but could not find grounds for a lawsuit against the district. He also said CCEA is encouraging its members to take the option to spread out their repayments over a 12-month period.
GAE Legal Services Director Michael McGonigle denounced the furloughs, however, in a strongly worded letter to Heatley, that bears Sunday's date. On Monday night, Heatley said he had not received the letter.
"It is inherently wrong in paying school employees their salary, and then asking them to give it back months later ... after it is spent on food, gas, and childcare, to what can only be described as mismanagement of taxpayer money," McGonigle wrote.