Pattye Benson

Community Matters

Teacher Furloughs for Economic Reasons . . . Could it happen in Pennsylvania?

The recent discussion of Union-Chadds Ford School District’s fact-finding report and their teachers union vote not to accept plus the potential of a teacher’s strike in the Perkiomen Valley School District continues to challenge me to understand the process and the ‘what if’s’.

In my last post, I asked some questions to which several of you kindly responded. However, one question lingers. With many of the school districts (not necessarily T/E) in an economic crisis, what happens if a school district simply does not have the money to meet the demands of a teachers union?

I understand that once a teacher’s contract ends, the teachers continue to work to the ‘old’ contract. However, perhaps 3 years ago when the last contract was written, the school district’s economic outlook was far different. If you set aside an increase in teacher salaries and/or benefits, what if a school district has no fund balance and cannot meet the current teacher contract requirements. What happens? How do these school districts maintain a status quo of the old teacher’s contract? Historically, I do not think that the current economic climate coupled with the pension crisis has existed during the last couple of decades (if ever) in Pennsylvania. Without a precedent, legally what can be done — what is the solution?

Pennsylvania state law permits staff reduction in a school district under very specific conditions – if a program is eliminated or if a school consolidates or school district reorganization requires it. Currently, the state law does not permit teacher furloughs for economic necessity reasons.

State Senator Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon County) is looking to change the state law on teacher furlough and give school boards the ability to reduce staff for ‘economic reasons’. For obvious reasons, teacher unions strongly oppose this idea whereas a number of economically challenged school districts support Folmer’s idea. This issue is rising to the forefront as school districts could face the possibility of severe cutbacks from state funding next year. Pennsylvania is facing a $4 billion budget deficit next year.

To meet the demands of the enormous budget gap, school districts across the Commonwealth are no doubt going to see a steep drop in state aid. What alternatives currently exist for school districts to fund their deficit? Assuming a school district does not have a fund balance (or at a minimum, a diminishing fund balance) their options are limited. They can raise property taxes, cut programs, or do a little bit of both. However, we know that state law compels school districts to limit property tax increases to a cap set by the state or seek voter approval for higher tax increases. Folmer hopes his legislation will allow more flexibility for the school districts; they could avoid program cuts by teacher furloughs based on economic necessity.

It is interesting to look at the arguments on both sides of the issue. The teachers unions argue that furloughing teachers could affect the integrity of the education program, lead to larger class sizes and put disadvantaged students at greater risk. There is a feeling among the teacher unions that the students would be shortchanged with the reduction in staff.

The argument from the other side (the school boards) is that this tool created by Folmer’s legislation could help the school districts avoid eliminating programs as a means of cutting expenses. Some school districts in Pennsylvania (fortunately not T/E) are in extreme financial situations. Economic hardship has backed some school districts in to a corner; how they are going to resolve their financial issues. For those school districts, maybe Folmer’s legislation to furlough teachers for economic reason is their only lifeline.

Problems are inherent in this kind of legislation . . . . How do school districts resolve the challenge of determining which teachers or administrators to furlough? How would school districts avoid the pitfall of arbitrary or subjective decisions in the furlough process?

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  1. Update — Perkiomen Valley School District and their teacher’s union have a ‘tentative agreement’. This agreement will ward off a teacher’s strike tomorrow in that school district.

  2. Unfortunately, it looks like the PV school board lost their minds. I’m assuming the tentative agreement must be more costly than the Fact Finder’s recommendation that was rejected by the teachers in January.

    The Fact Finder’s recommendation called for salary increases of 2.56%, 3.20% and 3.35% for the 3 years of the contract. Add on top of that the 10% to 15% yearly increase in health care and the 30% to 40% yearly increase in PSERS. Subtract out the increasing teacher contribution to health care (10%, 13% and 15%) and the district will be seeing teacher compensation increasing in the 4% to 5% range each year. One can only imagine how this board is going to find the funds with the Act 1 Index in the 1% to 2% range.

    We might forgive the TE board for signing the current “nasty” contract when economic times were more robust. I can’t think of any excuse for the PV board.

  3. We could hope that the union lost its nerve here and settled. Especially if they were afraid they couldn’t hold the group for a strike.

    But sadly this is the kind of stuff that happens. It’s why all the power is in the union hands in a way, because often a board just isn’t up for any more hassle and acrimony. A board stands on principal and parents rarely stand behind them– and most members are in way over their heads as far as time commitments and even understanding the details. As we’ve said before — the salary schedule itself is meaningless without the matrix that goes with it — unless you know where the people are, the schedule can be very misleading. But if there are no controls over where the people move on the schedule, that takes away the control again. This settled too fast for us to consider any meaningful lessons….except that voting to authorize a strike moves someone to the table.

    UCF is far more likely to be a template for us….Radnor right now is quietly doing something? Neshaminy is also still out there and has a blog that the board provides for negotiation status and updates. Probably useful to read it if you want to see how a district can go almost 3 years without a contract.

  4. With the current law, School Board choose to cut programs since teaching positions cannot be eliminated for economic reasons.

    If teaching positions could be eliminated for economic reasons, TE might still have FLES. The current law pushes districts to cut programs in order to balance budgets.

    Take a look at the strategies proposed by the School Board for balancing the budget. We’ll likely see Applied Technology removed for next year. While that program isn’t particularly popular, specials such as Art and Music are popular. In other districts, specials have been cut in the elementary schools in order to balance the budget. This is because districts can get state approval to eliminate a program (e.g. art in the elementary school) but cannot get state approval to cut teaching positions at the district’s discretion.

    If you value programs such as Art and Music, you should give serious consideration to any legislative movements to allow teacher furloughs for economic reasons. The current law gives districts a perverse incentive to cut special classes like art and music and foreign languages which aren’t required by the state. It’s happening now in other districts, and it could definitely happen in TE in the future.

  5. Didn’t they just cut German and Latin in the Middle School? Parents might need to serious step up and volunteer for an activity fee…6,000 kids could raise a whole lot of money (the fee could be maxed per family)

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