May 10, 2011

PSEA seeks improvements to legislation allowing economic furloughs for teachers

Legislation that would permit furloughs of teachers for economic reasons could be improved with language establishing a “trigger” mechanism to minimize adverse effects on students.

That was the message delivered in testimony at the state Capitol by PSEA Treasurer Jerry Oleksiak.
Oleksiak, a special education teacher in the Upper Merion School District, testified at a March 2 hearing before the state House Education Committee. Oleksiak pointed out that under current state law, teachers can be furloughed when enrollment declines, when part of the curriculum is phased out, when a school district merges with another district, or when school buildings are consolidated.

But schools are not businesses, Oleksiak pointed out. “Schools cannot shut their doors when revenue is insufficient, nor can they turn away any student, regardless of the individual challenges they may present or the unique needs they may have,” he said. “In fact, schools must accommodate these students and rise to the challenge of helping them succeed regardless of circumstances. We are required by constitution and law to educate all children, our communities expect it, and our students deserve it.”

Oleksiak said that PSEA recognizes the current fiscal problems caused by the recession confronting school districts, and pledged the association’s willingness to work together with lawmakers and school boards to confront them.

“Teachers and school support professionals understand that difficult decisions must be made in this tough economic time,” Oleksiak said. “We also understand that access to a high-quality public education is a basic right that should not be suspended when times are tough. It is also worth noting that our children did not cause the worst recession since the Great Depression, and they should not have to suffer because of misdeeds on Wall Street.”

Oleksiak asked the lawmakers to consider language to establish clear conditions to “trigger” economic furloughs of teachers, rather than to allow school boards to determine when economic conditions justify furloughs based on arbitrary and subjective criteria.

“The current trigger in the proposed legislation is insufficient,” Oleksiak said. “As drafted, the proposal requires the district to neither make actual spending cuts nor raise taxes” before furloughing teachers, leading to reduced course offerings and larger classes, he said.

“Unlike the private sector, where corporations try to maximize revenues and profits, some school boards have sought to minimize revenues,” Oleksiak said. “The state has recognized that without the economic furlough policy some school boards would be tempted to emphasize lower taxes over quality educational programs. If the policy were simply eliminated, some districts would freeze or reduce taxes, plead poverty, furlough teachers, increase class sizes, and cut programs.”

Oleksiak questioned provisions of the proposed legislation to eliminate the requirement that school boards furlough on the basis of seniority. Instead, the legislation would permit boards to base furloughs on factors other than seniority, the definition of which would be left up to each individual school district.

A furlough is a temporary layoff – the wrong procedure for dealing with ineffective teachers, Oleksiak said.

“If a school district identifies an incompetent teacher, it should document the teacher's performance, tell the teacher what is wrong, show how to correct the problems, work with the teacher, and continue to document performance,” Oleksiak said. “If the teacher's performance does not improve within a reasonable time frame, the district should terminate the teacher. It is PSEA’s job to ensure that employees are treated fairly – no more, no less.”

“Why use furloughs – temporary layoffs with established recall procedures – to eliminate incompetent teachers?”  Oleksiak asked. “Why would the district want to bring back incompetent teachers? We don’t want to do that, and neither should the district.”

The legislation, proposed by Rep. Scott Boyd (R-Lancaster), has not been introduced yet. Oleksiak’s full testimony is available online.


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