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Battered By Coronavirus Closures, Some School Districts Are Starting to Furlough Staff

Several school districts are beginning to renege on earlier promises to keep all their employees paid through the end of this school year. 

More than half of states will not reopen school buildings this academic year (and more will inevitably follow). And superintendents are now bracing for the likelihood that draconian cuts are headed for schools in the next few months. That has left some districts—including in Idaho, Massachusetts and Minnesota—to tell their bus drivers, teachers aides, and other hourly employees that they can't find alternative jobs for them or keep them on the payroll through this summer. 

The move has upset staff members and their union representatives who'd been under the impression that they'd stay employed and reassigned to other duties while schools kept their doors close to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. 

The Racine school district in Wisconsin abruptly ended its contract with its bus company, First Student, causing widespread confusion and panic among bus drivers who thought they'd be employed through the rest of the year and had yet to apply for unemployment.

Natick's school district in Massachussetts furloughed 93 employees, including its after-school workers and a piano accompanist after it realized it wouldn't be able to afford paying all its staff in the coming months.

"It's not a decision we took lightly," Superintendent Anna Nolin told the Metro West Daily News.

And in Idaho, the Kuna school district furloughed more than half its staff, about 145 employees, after the governor asked districts to cut 1 percent of their spending for this school year.  Bigger cuts are anticipated next year. 

Plans to Keep Paying Staff Upended

When states first closed schools, many superintendents, partly out of good will, decided to keep their hundreds of hourly employees on the pay roll for the rest of the academic year. The districts, in many instances, had already received the federal, state and local dollars needed to pay them through the rest of the academic year and it wouldn't cost them any extra to reassign them to do other duties in the district, such as serve free meals or help with distance learning. (Read our previous coverage here).

Some districts have offered frontline workers hazard pay.

But now state officials are warning districts that they will have to make cuts from their current budgets and drastic cuts from next year's budgets. 

The cascading effects of the virus have hit districts' pocketbooks in many ways.

Districts in the spring rent out their buildings for community events, collect athletic and parking fees from high school students, and make thousands of dollars from after-school programs they provide. With schools now set to remain closed, all that money has dried up, making it harder to keep paying employees who do not work. 

"Our school districts are doing everything they can to retain their staff but the unfortunate reality is that the longer the school closure goes, the more school districts will face the reality of having to implement layoffs in fee-based programs," Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts told Minnesota Public Radio last week.

America's public schools employ more than 3 million support staff, a 700 percent increase in the last half century.  Their pay and benefits  make up more than a quarter of districts' budgets. Successful efforts to raise states' minimum wage has also put a squeeze on districts' budget.

Amid forecasts of dramatic budget cuts, Denver last week told its hourly employees they might have to stall a multi-year effort to raise their minimum pay, a move that would cost the district more than $19 million.


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