Saving Our School Boards

The Pennsylvania School Boards Association and Commonwealth Foundation are policy opponents in the debate over giving students taxpayer-funded vouchers. But we strongly agree on the need to give elected school boards relief from onerous mandates that cost taxpayers more money and do little or nothing to improve the quality of public education.

We agree public schools should be held to a high standard. After all, they educate nearly 90 percent of the students in the state. They are responsible for large budgets, with about two-thirds of expenditures on average devoted to personnel costs. However, the hands of school boards are tied in many areas because state law dictates what they must do or restricts them from taking action needed to manage taxpayer dollars effectively. Mandates have a pervasive impact on school operations. Some are reasonable; many are not.

Unlike private and other public businesses or any other level of government, school districts are not permitted to reduce the size of their professional staff except under limited circumstances. These include: 1) a substantial decrease in student enrollment; 2) the curtailment or alteration of an educational program as a result of substantial decline in enrollment or to conform with standards of organization and education as required by law or recommended by the state Department of Education; 3) consolidation of schools or districts, or 4) the reorganization of a school district. What’s obviously missing from this list is the inability to pay.

In these economic times, school districts also must have the authority to furlough employees for budgetary reasons. No school board or administration enjoys cutting staff, but the grim reality today is that, with scarce resources, many districts must downsize their operations. Enacting legislation permitting furloughs for economic reasons therefore should be a high priority for Gov. Corbett and the General Assembly.

However, as are so many other public policy matters, how this should happen is just as important as why. If a school district is forced to eliminate teaching positions, it is important for the school leadership team to be able to decide which positions to retain. Some argue the decision should be solely on the basis of seniority—that is, the last person hired should be the first person let go. We strongly disagree.

Legislation allowing for economic furloughs passed by the state Senate effectively makes this effort at mandate relief nearly useless. Under the proposal, districts must furlough solely on the basis of seniority unless an employee has had two unsatisfactory performance reviews and the opportunity to complete a performance improvement plan, which could take a long time.

No private enterprise would accept such a provision or survive if it were required to hold onto ineffective employees for a lengthy period. If staff must be reduced because the budget must be balanced, school boards must be able to do so now, not two years from now.

Maintaining the quality of instruction should be the top priority and, to do that, school boards must be able to determine how furloughs will be conducted. They should be permitted to govern, not forced to comply with another unnecessary mandate that makes it more difficult to balance budgets and improve education quality.

Schools must be able to furlough teachers based on a broad-based assessment of student needs, not a last-in/first-out requirement that ignores teachers’ classroom performance, ability to connect with students, grasp of subject matter knowledge and innovative educational practice or years of experience teaching in an area in which they are certified.

Restricting furloughs solely on the basis of seniority allows a teacher who has never taught in a particular area but has a certification in that area to “bump” a teacher who has taught in that area.

Public schools are asked to be competitive and act more like private entities, but there is little comparison to the flexibility of the private sector in forcing public schools to furlough teachers based on seniority rather than performance or other important educational considerations.

In this economy with fewer dollars coming from Washington and Harrisburg, districts will need every tool at their disposal to manage their spending. Economic furloughs based on performance and the needs of students rather than seniority is a critical tool for our school leaders. We encourage the General Assembly to pass legislation that helps taxpayers and students.

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Thomas J. Gentzel is executive director of the Pennsylvania School Boards Association ( and Matthew J. Brouillette is president and CEO of the Commonwealth Foundation (