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Pa. may alter teacher furlough law

| Friday, March 4, 2011

Pennsylvania school districts struggling to balance their budgets this year may soon have a new way to do it, but critics say it could come at a high cost for teachers and students.

State law allows school districts to furlough teachers only if there is a multi-year drop in student enrollment, or as part of a school consolidation or the alteration or elimination of educational programs.

Legislation recently introduced in Pennsylvania's House and Senate would change that, allowing school districts to furlough teachers solely for economic reasons.

"I just thought this would be a good tool for school boards and school districts to have in their quiver," said Sen. Mike Folmer, R-Lebanon, who sponsored the bill in the Senate. "We want our school districts to be run more like a business."

Folmer said he hoped Senate Bill 612 would be law before the June 30 deadline for school boards to pass budgets.

Terry Struble, superintendent of the Mt. Pleasant Area School District, said local school leaders would welcome the legislation, especially because their ability to raise taxes is limited under Act 1, the Taxpayer Relief Act, which the General Assembly passed in 2006.

"As a business, beyond the primary purpose of educating our students, I have to balance a budget," Struble said. "If you're telling me I can't cut staff but I can't raise revenue, it doesn't work."

"This is the most difficult economic time that we're facing since the Great Depression," said James Manley, acting superintendent of the Sto-Rox School District. "What are we to do• Right now, with personnel, our hands are tied. We're on board on this thing, and I'd say it's about time."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association has been one of the strongest backers of the measure. Legislative services director Beth Winters said the group had worked with Rep. Scott Boyd, R-Lancaster, who introduced the House version of the bill.

David Davare, the association's research director, said that if the measure becomes law, furloughs would be used infrequently, and only when districts were hit with dire economic circumstances -- as they are now.

"If it passes in time for this year, I would think this year, maybe next year, depending on how the conditions go, it might be used a little more frequently," Davare said.

The legislation has been cause for concern among teachers unions.

At a House Education Committee hearing Wednesday, Jerry Oleksiak, the treasurer of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state's largest school employees union, told legislators that schools are different from businesses.

"Schools cannot shut their doors when revenue is insufficient, nor can they turn away any student, regardless of the individual challenges they may present or the unique needs they may have," he said. "We are required by constitution and law to educate all children."

But Oleksiak said the teachers union recognizes the economic challenges districts face this year. He said the union would support clarifying the bill's language to establish strict conditions under which a district could furlough teachers, to ensure that it truly was a last resort.

John Tarka, president of the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers, which represents 3,500 employees of the city schools, said his members were concerned that the bills did not make provisions for seniority.

"We're really opposed to the legislation as it is now," he said. "We're looking at it very carefully."

Dom Colangelo, an eighth-grade math teacher and president of Franklin Regional's local teachers union in Murrysville, said teachers seem to be "receiving a disproportionate share of the blame for our economic woes" this year.

"I am sensitive to the fact that in times of difficulty, sacrifices may become necessary for all stakeholders," he said. "I have a hard time distinguishing how much of the current legislation proposals is driven by ideological fervor and how much is driven by economic necessity."

Advocates for public education also noted that furloughs could have an adverse impact on children, in the form of larger class sizes.

"We're all bracing for state budget cuts, and losing teachers out of the classroom isn't going to help anyone," said Carey Harris, executive director of the Pittsburgh watchdog A+ Schools.

Ron Cowell, president of the Education Policy and Leadership Center in Harrisburg, said that probably would happen this year anyway.

"Districts will find a way to do it," he said.

In fact, the Eastern Lancaster County School Board voted late last month to lay off 15 staff members, and this week the Middletown Area School District in Dauphin County followed suit, furloughing 11.

The Erie School District, which faces a $26 million deficit, may lay off up to 400 staff members.

Each of the districts will use program elimination and declining enrollment to justify the cuts, but declining local revenue and expected cuts to state basic education subsidies were acknowledged as the real reasons.

"What the law ought to be addressing, in addition to how furloughs may be made, is how the state will fulfill its obligation to public education," Cowell said.

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