End of furloughs puts School District $1.2M in the hole

skinney@keynoter.comNovember 23, 2013 

Superintendent Mark Porter's plan to use an infusion of new state money to the Monroe County School District to end unpaid seven-day staff furloughs rather than for staff raises is illegal, state officials say.

That could leave the district on the hook for $1.2 million, meaning the district would have to find that money somewhere else before the end of the district's fiscal year on June 30.

In September, the School Board adopted a budget for fiscal year 2012-13 with matching revenues and expenses at $84.5 million and a $6 million unassigned fund balance.

Porter reluctantly agrees with the state Department of Education's stance but not with School Board member Ed Davidson calling the situation a "financial crisis."

The furlough program has been in place since 2011 and has saved the district $1.7 million each of the past two years. To pay to kill the program, Porter tapped $1.4 million derived from the Legislature's mandated teacher raise program to pay the lion's share.

Of that $1.4 million, $200,000 has gone to the Keys' six public charter schools.

State Department of Education spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said "a furlough buyback is not consistent with the law." She added, "Let me also say that the furlough buyback is not with Gov. [Rick] Scott's commitment to providing all teachers a much-deserved pay raise."

Porter acknowledged Friday "there is certainly going to be an issue" resulting in the "need to make adjustments to our current budget."

"Our financial condition is still such that I cannot waiver," he said. "It will not require the use of fund-balance reserves to make it work. Our desire will be not to impact students."

He didn't say where he'd find the money.

On Nov. 21, Davidson fired off an e-mail to his board colleagues and board attorney Dirk Smits saying "the administration just plain screwed up and the board must now bear the brunt of taking the lead on fixing it."

Davidson said trying to use the state's mandated raise money to kill the furlough program is "wishful thinking" that "could have been as easily resolved a long time ago by a few simple phone calls from the superintendent's office" to state education officials.

The other board members don't seem to share his anger.

"The district was very anxious to eliminate the furlough days," board member John Dick said, "and so it might have been done a bit premature."

"What we can do now is use our money for the buyback of the furlough days and use the [state] funding for providing the raise we were trying to negotiate" with the United Teachers of Monroe school personnel union. Contract talks between the district and the union broke down two weeks ago when the two sides couldn't agree on the contract language that allows the board to invoke furloughs.

UTM President Holly Hummell-Gorman said, "We have always maintained that the district didn't have a [financial] need to start the 2013-14 school year with furlough days, therefore, we are pleased that those unnecessary cuts have been corrected."

"The teacher salary increase allocation funds are to be distributed for new salary increases as determined by collective bargaining," she said.

After 24 bargaining sessions, Porter is stepping away from that process and brining in labor attorney Bob Norton from Miami. The next session is Dec. 18.

Board Chairman Ron Martin said he has "faith" in Porter's ability to figure out how to both give the staff the mandated raises while killing the furlough program.

"We'll be able to do it without going into our reserves and without going into the classroom. I know we're going to make it," he said.

"We know two things," board member Andy Griffiths said. "Furlough days ain't coming back and we're not dipping into the fund balance."

Pressed to assign blame, Griffiths said, "You'd think our people would be in communication with the Department of Education."

Porter pointed out that because Monroe is considered "property-rich," 90 percent of schools funding is raised locally, with the remaining 10 percent coming from the state. That means of the $1.4 million, the state kicked in about $100,000.

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