Hillsborough schools eye unpaid leave for teachers, aides, year-round staff

TAMPA — Hillsborough County school employees are being asked to take unpaid days off starting next year as part of an effort to shave $11.4 million off the school district budget.

The furloughs — two days for teachers and aides, three for year-round employees — are just one of several cost-saving measures outlined in a memo from Superintendent MaryEllen Elia. The teachers' union learned of the plan Thursday at the opening round of contract negotiations.

Teachers' union chief Yvonne Lyons likened it to cutting off a finger instead of both hands. In a survey the school district circulated earlier this year, furloughs were deemed less objectionable than other options such as pay cuts and layoffs.

While acknowledging that many teachers can handle furloughs, Lyons said it will be a hardship for lower-paid employees.

"Some people are making $14,000 a year, and three days' pay is a lot of money," said Lyons, executive director of the Classroom Teachers Association. "Our teacher aides are earning barely above minimum wage."

To save more money, she suggested that schools close for all of Thanksgiving week, and add two days elsewhere on the calendar.

But, she said, "We'll come back in a couple of weeks with a counterproposal. We are a long way from agreeing to anything on this."

State spending on kindergarten through high school could be reduced by 15 percent next year, amounting to a nearly $200 million hit for Hillsborough, if the Legislature can't soften the impact.

Along with the furloughs, the district wants to revise formulas for hiring music and art teachers, guidance counselors and kindergarten aides. Especially controversial, and subject to negotiation, is a plan to pay beginner's salary to retired teachers who return to the schools.

The district says it already has saved about $9 million by overhauling the bus system, and will save $1.8 million more by running summer school on four-day weeks.

Officials are overstating the budget crisis and, in doing so, threaten to dismantle hard-fought teacher gains, Lyons said.

"It makes me want to stand up in front of the school board and sing, "The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow", she said. "It's really depressing. I'm concerned that they're looking at long-term solutions for a short-term problem."

Schools spokesman Stephen Hegarty said that, on the contrary, a furlough is relatively easy to reverse once the economy rebounds. What's more, "We don't know how short-term the problem is going to be."

Staff writer Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 269-5307 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough schools eye unpaid leave for teachers, aides, year-round staff 03/06/09 [Last modified: Saturday, March 7, 2009 12:23am]

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