Uncertainty over how furloughs might affect DOD schools
By STEVEN BEARDSLEY | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 25, 2013
GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — As the deadline for staving off massive defense budget cuts looms, educators at military-funded schools around the world face uncertainty over how changes might affect them — and the 84,000 children they teach.
Teachers and principals reached at Department of Defense Dependents Schools on Monday say they anticipate four-day work weeks or shortened school years if Congress not only fails to prevent $50 billion in automatic defense cuts to the current fiscal year budget before Friday’s deadline but does not approve a fiscal 2013 budget. Either move would reduce educator pay and compress a yearlong curriculum.
Since warning earlier this month that educators could be among more than 800,000 Defense Department civilians asked to take as many as 22 days of furlough before Sept. 30 if the cuts occur, the Department of Defense Education Activity has remained silent on how changes would be implemented.
Michael Priser, director of the Federal Education Association, the union representing DODDS teachers, said DODEA officials told him they are considering cutting 10 to 12 days from the current school year and the remaining days from the school year beginning next fall.
DODEA rejected the idea of “floating furloughs,” he said, in which classes are joined together as teachers take furlough days on staggered schedules.
Because there are so few school days between the time furloughs are expected to take place, in late April, and the end of the fiscal year, closing schools for one day a week is not an option, Priser said.
“Either you’re going to take multiple school days from the week or you’re going to end school early,” he said. “Either one of those would hurt kids.”
Cutting back drastically on school days raises the question of how educators can compress their curricula without cutting substance, some officials point out.
The organization that accredits all DODEA schools, AdvancED, expects a minimum amount of education hours per school year based on the school’s grade-levels, according to its chief accreditation officer, Annette Bohling. Most schools meet those guidelines with 180 days of school, she said, while some go as low as 175. Anything lower, she said, is rare.
Bohling said DODEA officials called her to ask about the impact of furloughs on accreditation, although they didn’t present any scenarios. Bohling said she told officials that, while sympathetic that the situation was out of their hands, she expected to see a curriculum that didn’t short students.
“In this case they’re going to have a little more time to be systematic about what kind of approach they’re going to take,” she said. “What we don’t want is the student to be hurt in this situation. We want their instruction to still maximize the potential for learning.”
Even with few answers, educators are trying to plan for furloughs and measure the consequences to themselves and their students.
Teacher Beth Mepaial, of Yokota Middle School in Japan, said she wants to work without pay on furlough days but has been told it would be illegal. Mepaial said she would also have to stop working the 10 unpaid hours that she normally puts in preparing for classes at the school on weekends.
“We won’t be allowed to go into our classrooms to do that” on days off during the furlough, she said.
Mepaial said she can manage financially during the furlough with a bit of belt tightening, but she’s concerned about the impact on her students.
“Middle schoolers are risk-takers and highly social and they are not going to be supervised,” she said. “I would expect to see more risky behavior on base.”
The academic impact will be felt most by students in advanced-placement classes and middle schoolers taking high school courses, she said.
If the school year is foreshortened, parents may have to arrange care for younger children. When students are in school, the workload may be even heavier to make up for missed days.
“What’s their homework going to be like? That’s a concern,” said Amanda Manley, parent of a child at Grafenwöhr Elementary School in Germany. “What about their extracurricular activities? Would they have to forfeit that because of the load? What about parents? What would they do with their kids during those days?”
Others say they trust the school system to figure something out.
“I’m not really worried about it,” said Sgt. 1st Class Joe Duran, of the 44th Expeditionary Signal Battalion in Grafenwöhr. “The school will do what it’s got to do.”
That furloughs for educators are even under consideration is a surprise to many. Officials like Bohling and Priser said they don’t remember any previous furloughs across DODEA. In past crises, schools have remained open, they note. After the 2011 earthquake and nuclear reactor disaster in Japan, DODDS teachers were considered “mission essential” and schools remained open even as families evacuated.
DODEA director Marilee Fitzgerald requested that DOD consider educators “mission essential” if the current budget cuts hit, yet Priser said he’s unaware if officials have responded.
A spokesman for DODEA referred questions to the Office of the Secretary of Defense, where a spokesman, Cmdr. Leslie Hull Ryde, released a written statement: “At this point, I can tell you that DODEA is reviewing all areas of its budget for potential savings and is preparing for reduced spending with careful and thoughtful decisions that preserve the ability to provide students a full school year of academic credit and maintain school accreditation standards.”
Priser said that despite DOD’s past emphasis on keeping educators in school through crises, he believes DODEA is earnest about the possibilities of furloughs this time.
“I don’t believe we’re playing a chicken game,” Priser said. “I believe there’s going to be a serious shutdown and this is just playing with children’s education.”
Stars and Stripes reporters Seth Robson, Jennifer Svan, John Vandiver and Mark Patton contributed to this report.