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Schools Look to Teacher Furloughs to Trim Budgets

High school librarian Melissa Payne is starting her new school year with $1,000 less in her paycheck and three days that she'll be forced to stay home from her job.

It's the same story across the country, where teachers - once among the groups exempted from furlough days - are being forced to take unpaid days off amid massive state budget cuts.

Georgia is the only state so far to impose statewide furloughs for educators this fiscal year, though others are considering it. But furloughs are happening in individual districts in states such as New Mexico, Florida and California, said Ed Muir, deputy director of research and information services for the American Federation of Teachers.

For teachers like Payne, furloughs hurt a salary that already stretches thin most months.

She took a pay cut to move to a new school district in metro Atlanta this year, shortly before her new employer announced that all educators would be furloughed for three days. Now with student loans from graduate school and a brand-new home mortgage, Payne is frustrated.

"I went with this job because, even though it was less money, I thought it would be a better opportunity. And now it's even less money," she said.

School districts are facing historic cuts amid the worst economic decline in decades. But even if a district manages to avoid layoffs, teachers still are having to take furloughs on days when they would typically be planning lessons, going to conferences and meeting with other educators.

It will only become more common as districts struggle to keep up with dwindling state funding and lagging property tax revenues, Muir predicted.

"I think we're looking at more trouble ahead, and unless we find new money, that's going to lead to both furloughs and layoffs," he said.

Georgia is already $900 million in the red this fiscal year, which began July 1. The furloughs for all state employees - which includes teachers for the first time in more than 25 years - will save about $135 million, the majority made up of teacher salaries for 128,000 educators.

In North Carolina, teachers and other state employees were docked 10 hours of pay in the spring, but they have until the end of this calendar year to take the furlough time, said Sheri Strickland, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators. The time off must be taken on planning days when children aren't in the classroom, but Strickland doubts that most teachers will even bother to go on leave, instead just absorbing the pay cut.

The furloughs for every North Carolina state employee saved $65 million last fiscal year, which ended June 30, just a fraction of the state's $3.2 billion shortfall. So far, no teacher furloughs are planned for this year.

By and large, it's up to the local school boards in each state whether to furlough teachers because educators are on contract with districts rather than with the state. And many are unionized, which means district administrators must head to the negotiating table with teachers' unions before furloughs can be enacted.

But in Georgia, the state simply withheld three days' worth of money for teacher salaries and benefits, forcing districts to turn to furloughs. Only four school districts in Georgia - three of them large ones - have managed to find other ways to make up the cuts.

The rest of the state's 180 school systems say they have no choice.

In years past, states have largely exempted teachers when it comes to layoffs, furloughs and other pay cuts, but the recession has gotten so bad that states can no longer ignore such a large sector of the taxpayer-funded work force.

Teacher organizations say the furlough days mean less time for educators to study the latest teaching strategies or take a college class to sharpen their skills in whatever subject they teach.

"We are no longer in days where you can plan one lesson and feel pretty confident it's going to suit everybody's needs," Strickland said. "Doing lesson plans in the afternoon or in the evening or during a 30-minute planning time just doesn't quite give you time you need to do that."

In Hillsborough County, Fla., the teachers' union and school district have hammered out an agreement to avoid furloughs for now. But if the economic picture worsens unpaid leave could become a reality, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.

The district had asked for two furlough days for teachers and three for other school employees, he said.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has paved the way for up to five furlough days for school districts as part of the state's massive budget cuts approved this summer. It's up to districts to decide whether to use the unpaid leave.

Hit hardest by the nation's foundering economy, California this year has cut $18 billion in funding for its K-12 schools and community colleges starting in February to address an unprecedented $60 billion two-year budget deficit.

The state laid off 17,000 teachers in the spring after notifying nearly 30,000 that they could be cut. The state has more than 300,000 educators.

In Georgia, the governor has said furloughs throughout most of Georgia's 180 school districts are the best way to keep from laying off thousands of teachers and other educators.

For parents, furloughs are troubling because they mean less time for teachers to get ready for class and the ever-growing pressure of improving student performance on standardized tests. Still, Nancy Turner, of Lilburn, Ga., who has kids going into sixth and third grades, said furloughs are better than the alternative.

"I think it's better than having to lay off teachers and make classroom sizes bigger," Turner said.

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Associated Press writer Gary Robertson in Raleigh, N.C., contributed to this report.

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