New questions arise over teacher furlough money

skinney@keynoter.comNovember 20, 2013 

With protracted contract negotiations with the United Teachers of Monroe at a standstill, School Board member Ed Davidson is questioning Superintendent Mark Porter's entire strategy to fund the buy-back of unpopular teacher furlough days.

The seven-day unpaid furlough program went into effect in 2011 and saves the district $1.7 million each year. To fund the buy-back -- basically, killing the furlough program -- Porter tapped $1.4 million derived from a Legislature-mandated teacher raise program to pay the lion's share.

Davidson said he doesn't believe that's an appropriate use of the money, which has the ripple effect of negating six months of bargaining with UTM and putting the district on the hook for seven figures.

"New money means new raises," Davidson said. "I remain seriously concerned that we have been negotiating on a very questionable premise: That we can use money for new raises to pay off old furlough-day obligations, which will create a budget crisis in excess of $1 million."

Porter said the issue is "premature" because contract bargaining is not complete. When it is, the district will submit to the state Department of Education a "plan" for how the $1.4 million will be spent.

"Until such time as the negotiations process is completed and we thereby have a plan to submit, there is no question to be answered," he said. "Any such purported answers are merely speculative at this point in time."

He continued, "Most important to our employees is the clear message that the reinstatement of furlough days is a decision that will not be revisited. The School Board did what was right for our employees for all the right reasons."

Porter said the money for teacher salary increases "is clearly part of our overall budget picture. Resources expended in the contract negotiations process will include both [teacher salary increase] revenue as well as other provided revenue."

A one-year employment contract would cover 525 teaches and 114 school-related personnel like bus drivers and food-service workers.

Stuart Kessler, a member of the district's appointed advisory Audit and Finance Committee, is also raising the alarm on the furlough buy-back.

In a Nov. 12 letter to Porter and board members, Kessler wrote: "From my research, it appears that the additional funds allocated by the state for teacher salary increases must be used for prospective increases, not the funding of furlough days from the previous contract."

Kessler based his conclusion on a back-and-forth with Stephanie Hofheinz from the Department of Education's Office of Funding and Financial Reporting.

Specifically, Hofheinz directed Kessler to Senate Bill 1514, Section 26, which says, "A district school board or charter school board may distribute salary increases," but not use the money to restore previous cuts. Kessler also points to a "Statewide Teacher Pay Increase Q & A" distributed by the Department of Education.

Question 13 asks: "Are these funds to be used to cover previously bargained salary increases, or is the increase considered to be in addition to what our district already plans to offer?"

The answer is, "This is a salary increase to be included in the base salary as determined by collective bargaining agreement."

Porter announced an agreement in principle with UMT on Oct. 30 but that has since fallen apart over the "budget reduction article" in teacher and school-related employee contracts.

That's the provision the School Board used in 2011 to invoke the furlough program in the first place. UTM maintains that the provision expired with the three-year contract on June 30.

Last week, Porter notified UTM that he's bowing out of negotiations and the district will bring Miami-based labor attorney Bob Norton back to the table. Norton previously negotiated on behalf of the School District.

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