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Maryland District, Teachers Clash Over Use of Furloughs

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The Prince George's County (Md.) Board of Education and the local teachers' union clashed last week when the district rescheduled a week of employee-furlough days to avoid paying teachers unemployment benefits for the time off.

The 110,000-student district in the Washington suburbs had announced plans to close schools down for the whole week of the Feb. 17 Presidents' Day holiday as a cost-cutting measure.

But the board reconsidered the timing of the furloughs after leaders of the Prince George's County Educators' Association said teachers would demand unemployment benefits for the week off. A week's benefits for its idled teachers and other employees would have cost the district at least $2 million, according to district officials.

In response, the school beard voted to scatter the furlough days around several weekends, an existing half-day off, and a staff-development day. The rescheduling avoids the minimum of a full week off needed to qualify for unemployment compensation under state law.

Teachers reacted angrily to the change of schedule. Many said they had scheduled trips or made other personal plans in the expectation of having a full week off.

"We think it's a disaster," said Carl D. Lancaster, the president of the teachers' union, referring to both the furloughs and their timing.

"It reflects a continuing lack of leadership ... [by] placing the burden on the employees' backs rather than dealing with more substantive issues, such as the administrative bureaucracy,"he said.

The furlough plan "was the lesser of two evils," said Bonnie S. Jenkins, the district's director of public affairs and communications, who said the alternative was permanent layoffs.

"We're bleeding but we're not dead," she said of the district's fiscal situation.

The school beard plans to furlough its 13,000 employees--including 6,000 teachers, as well as administrators and other staff members--a total of five and a half days this semester. The unpaid holidays will enable the district to cover an estimated $12 million of a $25-million budget shortfall.

Last-Ditch Measure

Such furloughs are among the last-ditch tactics used by school boards in resolving budget deficits, said Mary Fulton, a research associate at the Education Commission of the States. The forced holidays without pay have not yet been widely used during the current recession, she said.

When furloughs are implemented, however, they raise a red flag to both taxpayers and legislators, Ms. Fulton said.

"They think, "Wow this must be bad,'" she said."That's when it starts hitting home."

An employee furlough "says we don't value your services and we value other services greater," said Jewell Gould, the research director at the National Education Association.

"We're concerned that this is the choice of school systems when there are so many other choices out there," he said.

Mr. Gould noted, however, that "[o]ur policy has been to support a deferment of wages in order to save jobs."

The Los Angeles Unified School District furloughed its employees two days last fall, in addition to negotiating a 3 percent salary cut to be paid back by 1995. Los Angeles did not close schools; instead, it designated two existing holidays as furlough days and deducted two days' pay from teachers' paychecks.

During this school year, furloughs have been proposed but rejected in the Rochester, N.Y., and Lawrence, Mass., school districts.

Hot Issue in Maryland

Most of the current debate over furlough proposals seems to be concentrated in Maryland, however.

The Prince George's County district is the only one in the state to have adopted a furlough plan. But other school systems there have eyed the use of furloughs as a way of coping with the fiscal fallout from a $12-billion state-budget deficit.

The Howard County and Montgomery County systems, for example, have considered implementing the forced holidays, although both have ruled them out for now.

In Baltimore, Mayor Kurt Schmoke was thwarted when he proposed furloughs that would have shut down city schools for a week in mid-February.

Responding to union and community protest, Mr. Schmoke instead "spread the pain," in the words of Linda Prudente, a spokesman for the Baltimore Teachers' Union, by canceling five days of holiday pay for all of the city's 26,000 employees.

Rather than closing schools, the Baltimore district decided simply not to pay the teachers for five existing holidays. The district then deducted a half-day of pay, or roughly $95, from each of the teachers' 10 remaining biweekly paychecks, which average around $1,876. Baltimore teachers had already given up a scheduled 6 percent pay raise earlier this year, Ms. Prudente noted.

Complicating the school-furlough proposal in Baltimore was the prospect that the extra days off would have put the district below the state's minimum school year of 180 days, thus necessitating a waiver from the state. (See Education Week, Nov. 20, 1991 .)

In Prince George's County, enough extra instructional days were included in the school calendar for this year to cover the furlough days while still meeting the state requirement, district officials said.

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