News Column

Rep. Seth Grove backs education furlough changes

June 23, 2014

By Nikelle Snader, The York Dispatch, Pa.



June 23--If a new House bill is passed, school districts with economic hardships could furlough teachers based on their performance, not seniority.

Under House Bill 1722, co-sponsored by state Rep. Seth Grove, R-Dover Township, furloughed teachers would be selected based on their performance in the new teacher evaluation system, not the current system of how many years teachers have worked in the district.

Grove says the bill would ensure a school's best teachers stay in the classroom, even despite economic hardships many districts are facing.

But the bill is not without its opponents: The proposal uses the current school funding crisis as an excuse to furlough teachers, said Wythe Keever, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. The association is a statewide teachers' union with more than 182,000 members across the state.

Grove said he's heard concerns from many people who are worried the proposal encourages furloughs, or creates the "illusion" that the number of furloughs will increase.

That's not the case, Grove explained, saying the proposal would give administrators more options when a district faces increasingly tight budgets.

Opponent: But Keever isn't buying Grove's explanation.

"Instead of finding more ways to furlough and lay off teachers, Pennsylvania ought to be finding a way to fund schools," Keever said.

Though many districts in York have been able to avoid furloughs by choosing not to replace retiring staff, a survey of school districts in 65 of 67 counties in Pennsylvania found furloughs have occurred in more than half of them.

Of the school districts surveyed, 60 percent have furloughed staff since the 2010-11 school year, according to the report put out by the Pennsylvania Association of School Administrators and the Pennsylvania Association of School Business Officials.

The report said 40 percent of the total furloughs were classroom teachers.

Grove said the bill was amended to address some key concerns. For one, the bill now states that salary cannot be a consideration during the furlough process, a large concern from opponents who said more experienced teachers with higher salaries would become targets.

In practice, Keever said he doesn't think that provision would be enough. Even then, he says the bill ignores a key contradiction between the current furlough law and the proposed bill.

Recall rights: When school districts furlough for economic reasons, those teachers have recall rights to any professional positions that would become available as the district recovers lost funds, according to the state's school code.

"If a teacher is ineffective, why would a school be giving them recall rights?" Keever said.

It's possible that a school district could face furloughs with teachers who all score proficiently, Grove said. But even so, the new process would ensure the best teachers are still in school, with recalls in order of teaching ability.

Grove said he's also heard concerns about moving to a more subjective system, and that teachers with more experience are able to teach their students more effectively.

If the most effective teachers are those with the most experience, Grove said, seasoned teachers shouldn't be concerned about the change.

School reactions: If the legislature shifts to a new furlough system as described in the bill, the most scrutiny will be on whichever evaluation tool is used, said Dallastown Area Superintendent Ron Dyer. This year was the first time the statewide evaluations were used at Dallastown, Dyer said.

The key, he said, will be that the evaluation systems are "implemented with fidelity" to ensure the process works as intended.

The new evaluations have been helpful at the South Western School District to start more in-depth conversations between teachers and their building principals, said Superintendent Barbara Rupp. But the evaluations are still subjective, Rupp said, and could have many variations between school buildings, she added.

"We have some learning pains with the instrument itself," Rupp said.

Regardless of the furlough process, Rupp said the district is doing everything it can to avoid the need for cuts at all. The district has not replaced several staff members who retired or resigned, with a commitment to continue supporting the staff that are in the schools, she added.

Grove said he is unsure of when the bill will go to the full House for a vote.

-- Reach Nikelle Snader at nsnader@yorkdispatch.com.

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(c)2014 The York Dispatch (York, Pa.)

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