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Schools budget advances, despite legal challenge

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

By Jeylin White and Curt Yeomans

jwhite@news-daily.com

The Clayton County Board of Education moved forward with its planned budget for 2012, despite a recent complaint filed against the school system in federal court.

"This complaint will not affect the budget, because the budget-reduction plan [which includes furloughs] has already been approved," said Denise Thompson, the school district's chief financial officer.

Board members voted 6-2, Wednesday, to tentatively approve the district's $339 million budget for next school year. Members, Jessie Goree and Michael King voted against the budget, while member, Trinia Garrett, was not present at the meeting.

Two county teachers, Linda Plummer and Janice Scott, are seeking to block a part of the budget that retroactively furloughs teachers for four days -- days for which they have already been paid. The furlough plan called for school employees to be furloughed, retroactively, for four snow days in January, as well as one additional day, which was observed last week.

Since district employees were already paid for the four days in January, they would have to repay the district for those days, by having money docked from their future paychecks. That is the heart of the matter in the complaint filed by the two local teachers in federal district court.

Last Friday, federal judge Richard Story issued a temporary restraining order (TRO) to bar the school system from deducting money from employees' paychecks for furlough days . But the action was short-lived. He dissolved the restraining order on Tuesday.

Lawyers representing the teachers said that, in spite of the judge's decision to dissolve the TRO, the case is still pending. "We will continue to pursue our clients' claims. This case is far from over," said Attorney Blake Andrews, with the law firm of Blake and Andrews.

Randi Farmer, the attorney representing the school system, however, said he will continue to defend the school district, but that he believes the teachers' claim has no merit. "But, we will wait and see how they pursue it," said Farmer. He added that the judge also canceled a hearing on the matter that had been scheduled for Monday, June 6.

While school system officials are moving forward with their plans for the 2012 budget, the court case, at least potentially, could still -- at some point -- pose a problem for the district's spending plans.

"We will be forced to go on with the budget process without knowing the outcome of that [federal court] case," said School Board Chairperson Pam Adamson. "We are confident that we have taken a legal action, and an appropriate action."

The school board approved the furlough days in April as a way to avoid making cuts to elementary school art, music and counseling programs. The furlough days were approved in lieu of other controversial methods of cutting costs. Those included asking educators to give back $6.4 million in federal jobs money, which employees received last December, and shortening the school week to four days.

District officials, and school board members, abandoned the plan to reclaim the jobs money in April, ironically, out of fear that it might not be legal. One of the criticisms educators have had about the furloughs, however, is that they are allegedly the same action as reclaiming the federal jobs money.

The majority of board members rejected the shorter school week, because that plan would have meant longer school days, which they felt would negatively impact students and teachers.

Adamson said the board will not consider other methods of saving the programs just because there is the specter of an ongoing federal court case hanging over the board. The court would have to force the board into a situation where those options would have to be considered, she said. "We would not do that, unless we lose that action [on the furlough days]," she said.

Sid Chapman, president of the Clayton County Education Association, who said his membership includes nearly 3,000 school system employees, said at least one of the teachers, who filed the complaint in federal court, is a member of his organization.

Chapman said his group had consider filing a lawsuit on behalf of teachers over the furlough issue, but could not find legal grounds to do so. Still, he expects more teachers to file on their own. "You can't just arbitrarily layoff teachers," he said. "Georgia has laws, and they have to follow the law." Chapman added that it is unusual to see teachers "retroactively" furloughed.

Thompson, the school system's chief financial officer, said the district will hold two public hearings on the budget on June 6 -- at 11 a.m., and 5:30 p.m., at the Clayton County Public Schools Central Administration Complex, at 1058 Fifth Avenue in Jonesboro.

Residents will be able to offer comments during the hearings.