State House Sound Bites

Capitol reporter Mary Wilson covers Pennsylvania politics and issues at the Pennsylvania state capitol.

Second try for non-seniority teacher furloughs bill

Written by Mary Wilson, Capitol Bureau Chief | Dec 3, 2013 5:26 PM
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State lawmakers are taking another whack at removing some of the constraints on furloughing teachers in Pennsylvania, spurred by a down economy and a regard for teacher seniority as arbitrary.

Right now, school districts can furlough employees for any one of four reasons. Economic difficulty isn't one of them, and some state House lawmakers think it should be.

"While personnel costs comprising on average two-thirds of a school district's budget, districts need the ability to exercise maximum flexibility and discretion to more freely manage their personnel costs, just like the private sector," said Rep. Seth Grove (R-York), one of three lawmakers sponsoring three different bills aiming to change the rules on teacher furloughs (similar legislation was considered by state lawmakers in 2011, as well).

Proposals aiming to change the "why" associated with furloughs also seek to change the "how." The same legislation would remove considerations of teacher seniority from furlough decisions. Grove called seniority an "artificial construction." Supporters say protecting the most senior teachers from furloughs doesn't put students first by helping schools retain the best educators.

"If and when furloughs become necessary, what could be more fair - what could be more equitable - than basing those decisions not on seniority but on the quality of the product the teacher produces?" said Rep. Tim Krieger (R-Westmoreland).

Education Secretary Carolyn Dumaresq agreed during her testimony before the House Education Committee Tuesday.

"You should look at the quality of the staff that you are dealing with, and make decisions based on the quality of the staff," she said. "And, for me, that is not necessarily our most senior teacher. It is based on the performance in the classroom."

The state's largest teachers union is pushing back. Mike Crossey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, said the move would just lead to furloughing longtime teachers, because they're the most expensive employees.

"I think school boards will look at the reality of their budget and say, 'we need you to save this much money, save this much money by cutting the fewest number of people possible,'" he said. "And that's going to mean the most senior teachers."

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association supports the proposals, as it did in 2011.

But Rep. Mike Carroll (D-Luzerne) said he fears changing the allowable rationale for furloughs in the first place will only make temporary layoffs inevitable in the current economic climate.

"It just seems to me that school boards, in particular, have been dealt a hand now that's almost an unplayable hand," Carroll said. "Or a different metaphor may be they have an unsolvable mathematical problem, and that is that they have a financial foundation upon which they can't operate the school district."

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