MONROE, CT — Officials urged teachers to reopen their contract and give something back to the town in July, so layoffs could be avoided amid a tough budget year. There was a fear that unemployment spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic would lead a shortfall in revenue, because people could not afford to pay their taxes.
Teachers earned praise by joining members of other bargaining units in agreeing to three furlough days. The agreement included a clause promising the district will do all it can to reinstate those furloughed days if savings are found elsewhere in the budget.
Now that there is a $323,000 surplus left over from the Board of Education’s 2019-20 budget, some say the Board of Finance, which will decide what to do with the money, should use some of it to restore furlough days.
On Monday, Marie Blake, president of the Monroe Education Association, reminded the Board of Education how the most dire economic forecasts did not come to fruition.
“When this bleak picture was painted, we kept hearing, ‘teachers need to step up and do what’s right,'” Blake said. “Well, we did and now it’s your turn to step up and do what’s right.”
In addition to having a budget surplus, Blake noted how the district recently settled with former superintendent of schools Jack Zamary “at a great expense to the district.”
“Where there once was no money, now there is,” she said during the public comment portion of Monday’s meeting. “Our furlough agreement stated that if surplus funds existed, it would go back to the bargaining units. I am here on behalf of Monroe’s teachers to implore the board to repay that money to the bargaining units. It is the right thing to do. Our contract was negotiated in good faith.”
Board of Education Chairwoman Donna Lane said once a fiscal year ends on June 30, any budget surplus must be given back to the town. Though the school board will recommend how the money should be used, Lane said the ultimate decision is up to the Board of Finance.
Michael Manjos, chairman of the Board of Finance, suggested using the surplus to create funds for COVID-19 and special education due to the uncertainty of the pandemic and how special education costs can rise during the year.
On Monday, the majority of the Board of Education agreed with board member Nick Kapoor’s proposal to ask the finance board to use $184,000 to restore one furlough day and give raises to custodians, who agreed to a zero increase to help the district.
The remaining $139,000 would be used to set up a special education fund.
Shannon Monaco, a board member, disagreed with the second part of the proposal. Rather than setting up a special education fund, she wants to use that money to restore a reading specialist position that was cut in the budget process, to provide a positive impact to a greater number of students.
The Board of Education will finalize its recommendation for the Board of Finance at its next meeting.
An impassioned plea
During a public comment portion of Monday’s Board of Education meeting, Blake made an impassioned plea for the furlough days to be restored.
“How many other districts in the state have taken furlough days?” she asked. “None. How many other districts have frozen teachers salaries? None. Why did we do it? We did it to preserve jobs, to preserve class sizes and most importantly to preserve this award winning school district.”
Blake noted how teachers agreed to the three furlough days in July and the school district learned of the budget surplus at the end of August.
“Good timing for you. Bad timing for the members of all the bargaining units,” she said.
“More than ever, during this pandemic, teachers need to know they are valued,” Blake said. “Teachers are working countless hours to accommodate all students, regardless of their location, whether at school or at home.”
When she asks teachers how they are doing, Blake said answers include “surviving” and “doing the best I can.” She said the only answer she gets from elementary school teachers is that they are “drowning.”
Support from the BOE
Jerry Stevens, a board member and a retired teacher who taught at Jockey Hollow, was emotional in expressing his opinion that the teachers gave up time to help the town and, now that there is a budget surplus, furlough days should be restored.
Kapoor agreed, saying, “I think this board does have somewhat of an obligation. If not a moral obligation, I think there’s an argument to be made for a legal obligation, the language of the agreement.”
Vice Chairman George A. King, III, said there needs to be a plan for the extra special education students the district anticipates, as well as money being given back to the teachers.
“I’m in agreement with other folks on the board that we should give back to the teachers — whatever we can,” King said, “… because it was a very noble thing that they did, and I think that they need to be recognized for that.”