LAND O'LAKES — Pasco school district employees won't be getting paid for their first day of spring break next month.
They'll be on mandatory unpaid leave instead.
The workers' second furlough day of the year was originally scheduled for June 7, the last of two teacher planning days and the end of the 2011-12 contract. But after scheduling problems arose surrounding the first furlough day in December, representatives from the United School Employees of Pasco asked the administration to consider swapping the April paid vacation date for the June unpaid one.
The move paves the way for teachers to work as many hours as they want in the last week of school, even though technically they have just one day of teacher planning.
"This is just removing the restriction" for anyone who wants to put in extra time, said district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli, who informed the entire staff of the change in a recent memo. "That's what they asked for." She emphasized that the district is not encouraging employees to work extra hours, but providing them the flexibility to work the hours they choose.
USEP president Lynne Webb agreed that teachers might want to go into the school after hours on the last week of the year to complete report cards or clean their classrooms. With a furlough day that week, the schools become inaccessible, she said.
By making the final day off a paid vacation day, employees can do what they want, she said.
The legal difficulty stems from federal labor law. As the first furlough day approached in December, lawyers said the district could not require its employees to work more than 32 hours during the same week as a furlough day. The aim was to protect them from being forced to do five days' worth of work while being paid for only four.
During the week before winter break, the USEP and the district got complaints from teachers who said they had planned to attend evening events and do grading from home, for instance, that would have them working too many hours. The district permitted flex time scheduling for that week to accommodate employee needs.
"By switching the paid holiday and the furlough date, you relieve the problem," School Board vice chairwoman Cynthia Armstrong said, noting that pay rates remain unchanged.
As the word spread to employees, several teachers sent emails to clarify or question the move.
Wesley Chapel Elementary teacher Sheri Johnson sent an email asking Romagnoli: "If we need to work on June 7, that is ok?"
"It is a holiday and you are not scheduled or expected to work on that day," Romagnoli responded. "Due to the change, there would be no legal implications, however, if employees choose to work on that day."
San Antonio Elementary teacher Sheri Gregory wasn't entirely convinced the move helps. She made her point in an email to the district.
"Basically, this change is 'allowing' us to work the mega, 'non-scheduled' hours necessary the last week of school, to ensure that we get all of our responsibilities accomplished. However, when we are on our scheduled break/vacation, we are being told NOT to do anything school related because this is a violation of federal law," Gregory wrote.
"If my translation is correct, I'd love to know WHY the government and powers-that-be don't officially recognize how much of our OWN time educators put into our students, and WHY it's okay to do that during EVERY other week of the school year."
The School Board imposed two mandatory unpaid days off for district teachers and school-related employees this year, along with three days for year-round employees, as a way to slash spending by $6 million from a shortfall of about $60 million.
District officials have projected a shortfall of about $26 million for 2012-13. They have not yet discussed how to make up the difference, although earlier this week they rejected moving ahead with a four-day week, which a task force estimated would save about $6.6 million a year.
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.