Arbitrator: Teacher furloughs mismanaged

JERSEY SHORE — Eleven Jersey Shore School District teachers who were furloughed by the school board last May must be offered their positions back in the next 30 days, according to a ruling by a Scranton-based arbitrator.

The ruling by John C. Alfano, arbitrator, was in response to the Jersey Shore Education Association grievance it filed against the district last June, said Cary Kurtz, a State College attorney representing the Pennsylvania State Education Association.

The grievance followed a vote by the Jersey Shore School Board to issue furloughs and non-renewal notices to the 11 teachers. Six of the teachers were non-tenured, and five were tenured teachers.

Board members Kelley Wasson, Mary Thomas and Christopher Fravel voted against any furloughs.

District officials cited “declining enrollment” as the basis for their furlough decisions, according to Alfano’s ruling, which stated the furloughs and non-renewals were clearly made because of “economic reasons.”

The state Legislature changed the school code in 2017. Prior to that school districts could not furlough teachers for economic reasons, Kurtz said.

The change, however, allowed for furloughs for purely economic reasons, but a number of legal moves had to take place, Kurtz said.

School boards must adopt a “resolution of intent” to furlough professional employees citing economic conditions at least 30 days prior to the adoption of the district budget, according to the school code.

The school district missed the April 30, 2018 deadline to adopt the resolution, and instead attempted to base the furloughs on declining enrollments.

Just a few days more than two months before the board acted on the furloughs, school Superintendent Jill Wenrich was acknowledging to the association president that all furloughs were economic in nature.

An open board meeting must be held to explain how much money would be saved by the furloughs, how they affected the budget deficit and whether the furloughs would wipe out the deficit, or limit it and the affect on the academic programs, Kurtz said. Also, there has to be an equal percentage of administration and teachers involved in any furloughs.

“The district didn’t do any of these,” Kurtz said. “Clearly, the district was in a financial hole and the furloughs were to balance the budget.” He added, “it was subterfuge to say it was for economic reasons.”

Alfano’s ruling also cited numerous board discussions and emails that discussed the furloughs as an option to deal with the district’s budget deficit.

What may be next?

Over the course of a year, a few of the teachers have been recalled, while some have secured permanent positions in other school districts, Kurtz said.

Some of the teachers may be due backpay, Kurtz said. “Some who secured work in other districts will be given a choice if they stay where they are or go back,” he said. A few of the teachers have not found permanent employment in any district, he said.

The furloughs reportedly spared the district about $500,000, according to a prior statement by Ben Enders, business manager.

Attempts to reach administration or school board directors Wednesday were not successful. However, Jersey Shore Area Education Association President Bradd Williamson said he was pleased by the results of the arbitration and he is hopeful that the teachers can return to the district.

The district has a month to appeal to the Commonwealth Court, but Kurtz indicated that would be a “waste of taxpayer money” based on the experience of Alfano.

“The ball is in their court,” Kurtz said.

Jersey Shore Area School District officials could not be reached for comment as of press time.