The way the school district did away with the "furlough days" so hated by district employees may have been illegal, officials discovered this week.
While poking around on the Department of Education (DOE) website, Audit and Finance Committee Vice Chair Stuart Kessler stumbled across a posting that appears to throw cold water on the district's methodology.
The post appeared in the Frequently Asked Questions regarding the Teacher Salary Allocation announced earlier this year by Gov. Rick Scott.
"Are these funds to be used to cover previously bargained salary increases, or is the increase considered to be in addition to what our district already plans to offer?"
"Funds are to be distributed for new salary increases as determined by collective bargaining agreement."
However, amid much fanfare, the district used Teacher Salary Allocation funds to buy back the furloughs in late September. The money has yet to be disbursed, pending state approval of the district's deal with the United Teachers of Monroe (UTM) union; a deal that has now crumbled.
Since making the discovery, Kessler said that he has been trying to ascertain whether the district will have to redo the buy back.
"My reading of the statutes that were provided to me by the DOE, as well as the FAQ, seems to clearly indicate that using the Teacher Salary Allocation to restore furlough days is not a qualifying use of the money," Kessler said. "I've requested an opinion from the DOE, to which I am awaiting a response. However, in my phone conversations [DOE employees] informally agreed with my position. I've since emailed my concerns to the school board."
The Citizen has also requested clarification from the DOE, but hadn't heard back by the end of business on Friday.
District 3 board member Ed Davidson said he is concerned by the development.
"If you go by the political campaign guidelines from the governor's office, which allow considerable latitude in how the raise money is spent, we might be able to get away with spending new money to buy back past furlough days," he said. "But if the actual wording of the legislation governs the use of the money, it clearly says it must be for new raises, not old obligations, in which case we'll have to take back more than a million dollars for the furlough day buy-back money from other parts of the budget."
No matter how the DOE rules, one thing is certain: the furloughs aren't coming back.
"It's a unique situation," Davidson said. "However, we absolutely cannot bring back the furlough days. There would be drawings and quarterings, and tarrings and featherings, and rightly so."
Superintendent Mark Porter on Friday confirmed that he's aware of the situation, but cautioned that it's too early to worry about state rejection of the district's deal with the UTM.
"It's actually something that we've been paying attention to all along," Porter said. "We've referenced the FAQs, and we've also had conversations with the DOE, but I don't think it's going to be an issue until we get our collective bargaining agreement. Until that's done, we won't have a plan for the DOE to approve."
Porter added that reinstating the furloughs isn't an option for him either.
"We worked very hard to find a way to get rid of them," he said. "We're not looking to go backwards on this issue."