by Rik McNeil, Director, Central Panhandle Service Unit
“It’s scary”, said Cathy Wood, president of Franklin County Teachers Association (FCTA). “If it’s happening in Franklin County, it can happen anywhere in the state. We are fragile because we are a small county. We have just one school, less than a thousand students, and less than 150 teachers and support personnel.”
What Wood is talking about is the perfect financial storm that hit the Franklin School District:
»» A half million dollar error made by the county tax assessor.
»» Decreased funding from the state Legislature.
»» Declining students for the first time in more than 5 years caused an inflated enrollment estimate.
»» Economic impact of the BP oil spill.
»» Declining property values.
»» Georgia’s infringement on water flow decimated the local fishing industry.
»» Housing foreclosures.
“Last year, citizens voted to continue the half mill referendum in order to retain a quality workforce and improve public education opportunities for Franklin’s kids,” said Wood. “But even with this help the Franklin School District expected ending the 2012-13 school year with a negative fund balance.” The half mill made up most of the gap created by the Legislature and the economic effects of the BP oil spill and the recession. But a $400,000 error by the former local tax collector lead the district to declare “financial urgency” in mid-January.
The financial urgency statute allows a public employer to open a 14-day window for negotiations following an unforeseen change in finances. When the teams came back to the table they were greeted with district proposal to take 19.5 percent of school employees’ pay for the rest of the year to correct the shortfall. The proposal ignited the leaders and members of Franklin’s school district unions. Wood and Franklin ESP Association (FESPA) President Tammy Sasnett organized members and others. “We understand the emergency,” said Sasnett. “At the last school board meeting we packed the house. Most in the audience wore signs that read ‘I AM A TEACHER’, ‘I AM A BUSDRIVER’, ‘I AM A PARENT’, ‘I AM A STUDENT’ to show that this proposal would have a real effect on real people in Franklin County.” Wood told the
Board directly, “This is not the employee’s fault. We have done our job, now it is time for the board and administration to find the money somewhere else.”
Ultimately, however, it was the unions’ bargaining teams that came up with the best solution to the crisis. During the 14-day bargaining period the teams did a lot of creative thinking. Fortunately, the turnout and resultant media attention put pressure on the district to agree to an alternative solution that didn’t wreak further
havoc on the lives and pocketbooks of Franklin County teachers and ESPs.
The employees agreed to delaying June paychecks to July and ending the school year early by furloughing all employees the last two days. For everyone from School Board members to students, the last day of school will now be June 7. In the end, by exercising unity and mobilizing quickly, union members and the community were able to use their collective power to avoid radical cuts to the employees’ pay and benefits.