Furlough request leaves midstate schools scrambling to comply

A week before most Middle Georgia schoolteachers return to work to prepare for the start of a new school year, Gov. Sonny Perdue sprang news of another round of cuts.

This time he’s asking the state’s 128,000 teachers to take a three-day furlough by the end of the year.

Many school systems, such as Bibb, Crawford and Monroe systems, were left Wednesday figuring out how to handle the request.

Meanwhile, Houston County schools made the decision to furlough most of their employees next Thursday and Friday, which would cut into teacher training and time when parents can visit schools to fill out paperwork.

Bibb County schools Superintendent Sharon Patterson called a news conference Wednesday, saying the system hasn’t decided whether it will force teachers to take unpaid furloughs or look at other parts of the system’s budget to cut.

She said she didn’t know if the governor had the legal authority to mandate unpaid teacher furloughs because teachers sign contracts with their local school boards and are required to work 190 days a year.

“Teachers are on pins and needles, and I don’t want to do any knee-jerk reaction,” Patterson said. “The decision comes late, and we want to be careful with how to proceed.”

Perdue announced late Tuesday that the state’s teachers are to take three unpaid furlough days and that public school systems would need to slash their fiscal 2010 budgets by 3 percent to ease an estimated $900 million state budget shortfall blamed on plummeting tax collections.

Most school system officials got the news late Tuesday during a teleconference and were scrambling with their staffs into the evening and early Wednesday.

For Bibb County schools, the 3 percent state cut represents a $3.3 million loss to the system’s $187 million general budget.

And the state will withhold another $2.4 million from the school system — money equal to three days of teacher furloughs, Patterson said.

“The continued reduction of support and funding to public education is distressing to me, to the board of education, and it is most distressing to the employees of the Bibb County school district,” she said.

Houston school officials said the 3 percent cut would be a $4.2 million loss to its more than $200 million general operating budget. The three-day teacher furlough withholding would be another $2.1 million cut, Houston County schools Superintendent David Carpenter said.

“This is something we have no control over. The money isn’t there, and the governor can’t send us anything that he doesn’t have,” Carpenter said. “I don’t think (furloughs) will have a major impact in the classroom because it’s not a student day.”

But Carpenter, who also is taking the three-day furlough, said he hoped this latest measure would be “as far as we have to go.”

Houston County schools will close elementary and middle schools July 30 and July 31 and furlough most employees, including teachers and principals on those days, in addition to Oct. 13.

High schools and the central office will have limited staff. Parents are urged to do any school business before those days or on Aug. 3, the day before school starts.

Other certified staff will take furloughs Oct. 13 and two days in November.

In Monroe County, the school system has a called meeting today to discuss furlough possibilities, Assistant Superintendent Jackson Daniel said.

“We are looking at utilizing any teacher work days for these furloughs,” he said. “Basically we have six on the calendar between the first day of school and Dec. 31. Five are pre-planning days and one is an in-service (day) in October. This would allow us to not affect any student instructional days.”

A Crawford County school system spokesman said that system also is reviewing the best option since teachers had already taken a pay cut there.

“This is another blow to an educational system that requires the same accountability with ever-decreasing resources,” Crawford County schools spokesman Trey Seagraves said.

Peach and Jones County school officials didn’t comment Wednesday.

Meanwhile, other state workers also are being furloughed for three days, with most state agencies also asked to cut 5 percent of their fiscal budgets.

Over the past months, the state has had to slash about $3.7 billion to stay afloat.

Some state-funded agencies said Wednesday they aren’t sure how the cuts will affect them.

“This is not a new situation,” said John Millsaps, associate vice chancellor for media and publications at the Board of Regents for the University System of Georgia. “We’ve been dealing with this situation for a year now. We were expecting additional reductions.”

Millsaps said the regents will submit three separate plans for reductions of 4 percent, 6 percent and 8 percent for approval. Once a plan is chosen, the board will decide what cuts can be made at the system level before passing the cuts down to the university presidents, Millsaps said.

“We’re looking at what we can do at a system level to make it less hard on the institutions,” Millsaps said.

Taka Wiley, a spokeswoman for the state’s Department of Human Services, said her agency is still looking at the governor’s mandate, so it’s unknown how local organizations such as the Department of Family and Children Services will be affected.

“It’s too premature to say what will happen at this point,” she said. “Our main concern is that the services we provide are not impacted.”

Lisa Love, director of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, said the state has asked the museum to withhold an additional 5 percent of the museum’s budget, in addition to previous cuts made.

The Associated Press and Telegraph writer Phillip Ramati contributed to this report. To contact writer Julie Hubbard, call 744-4331.