Photo by Heather Middleton
By Curt Yeomans
A proposal to save elementary school fine arts and counseling programs by making Clayton County Public Schools employees give back financial bonuses is a source of great concern for the chairperson of the county's school board, and the leader of one of Clayton's main teachers' associations.
On Monday, Superintendent Edmond Heatley asked the school board to sign off on the district "recouping" $6.25 million in education jobs money that was distributed to employees in December as part of the federal government's jobs bill.
He told school board members that would allow him to save elementary school art, music and counseling programs from suffering budget cuts. Heatley has told the school board it must cut $49 million in spending over a two-year period, to avoid going into a deficit.
On Wednesday, however, the reactions to Heatley's latest recommendation, from School Board Chairperson Pamela Adamson, and Sid Chapman, the president of the 2,500-member Clayton County Education Association (CCEA), ranged from hesitant endorsement to outright refusal.
"I hate it, but if it's the only choice we have to save our elementary art and music teachers, and our counselors, then, I will support it," Adamson said.
Meanwhile, Chapman said, "There's got to be a better way."
The school board is scheduled to vote on final adoption of the superintendent's budget-reduction plan, on April 12.
Earlier this week, the superintendent said, if the board supports his plan to "recoup" the education jobs money, the district will reclaim the dollars gradually from the employees' pay, over a 12-month period.
Chapman and Adamson offered two different pictures about how school system employees are reacting to Heatley's new proposal. Adamson said much of the feedback she has received from teachers was in favor of returning the jobs bill money to the district, "if it will save the art and music teachers, and the counselors."
Chapman said several of CCEA's members, who range from teachers, bus drivers and cafeteria workers, to staff members and administrators, has not been so accepting of the idea. "I've heard from an overwhelming number of teachers, and they are saying they are not in support of this," he said. "Most believe it would not be enough to save the jobs."
Actually, reclaiming the money alone would not be enough to cover keeping the three elementary school programs intact. While the district would reclaim $6.25 million in education jobs money from its employees, the cuts to the elementary art, music and counseling programs total $8.1 million.
In addition to "recouping" the money, however, Heatley also wants to make $2 million worth of cuts to the district's school nutrition program, ranging from cutting employee benefits, to eliminating 36 assistant manager positions in elementary school cafeterias. Additionally, he is asking for permission to eliminate 50 vacant bus driver positions, which he has said would save the district $1.89 million.
But, if the board does not approve "recouping" the education jobs money, other suggestions may come up -- possibly from within some pockets of the board's membership -- to find the money to keep the teachers. One such alternative that could get some play is a revived suggestion to reduce the school week to four days, and make school days longer.
The board shot down the shorter-school-week idea earlier this month, but board member, Ophelia Burroughs, suggested it again on Monday as a possible solution.
"I don't think I'm alone in this, but I think it would be a great idea, if we bring that 4-day week back in," Burroughs said. She later added, "I would hope that we would at least put the four-day work week back into the other options to work with ... We need to look at every option to try to save our arts and music."
Heatley told the board that, if it went with the shorter school week, then it would have to cut the school year by 37 days, and add two hours onto each school day, to save the elementary art, music and counseling programs.
There is resistance on the board to a shorter school week, however. Adamson and board member, Jessie Goree, on Monday, expressed concerns that longer school days would be too much for teachers and students to handle.
"My concern is the quality of instruction," said Adamson, who is a retired educator. "When I was in the classroom, I was a good teacher. I'm not sure I could be a good teacher with a longer day."