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Classrooms, such as this one at Baumholder High School, could soon be empty as the Defense Department school system deals with teacher furlough days.

Classrooms, such as this one at Baumholder High School, could soon be empty as the Defense Department school system deals with teacher furlough days. (Matt Millham/Stars and Stripes)

GRAFENWÖHR, Germany — A Department of Defense plan to close military-run schools for as many as five days at the beginning of next school year as part of the DOD budget cuts was met with frustration and resignation by educators and parents alike.

Teacher union officials vowed to oppose the plan, which was announced Tuesday by the Pentagon’s education arm, the Department of Defense Education Activity.

“To cause students to lose even a single day of education due to this manufactured sequestration crisis (let alone five days) is unnecessarily harmful to the educational environment,” Michael Priser, president of the Federal Education Association, wrote in an email to teachers.

Others appeared to accept the plan, which would see teachers lose less time and pay than the majority of civilian defense employees, who face up to 11 days of furloughs before the end of the current fiscal year. Officials originally threatened 22 days of furloughs in response to nearly $50 billion in defense cuts due to sequestration and an underfunded budget.

“That’s the best out of a bad situation, I think,” said Maria DuPreeLynn, an educator in South Korea. “As long as they’re not [sequential] days.”

Furlough dates for schools have yet to be set. Whether they will be chosen by local schools or administrators at higher levels remains unclear. Principals will inform teachers of the dates before the end of the current school year, according to a memo sent to teachers by DODEA director Marilee Fitzgerald.

Like other civilians, teachers will first receive a 30-day advance notice of impending furloughs, after which they’ll have seven days to reply. Final decisions will be sent to employees between June and July. Few exceptions are expected to be granted.

Roughly 11,000 educators--teachers, educational aids and support staff--are eligible for the reduced furlough days, according to DOD spokeswoman Cmdr. Leslie Hull-Ryde. Other DODEA employees still face the maximum 11 days, she said.

Schools will open as scheduled in the coming school year, Fitzgerald wrote in the memo. Schools in Europe and Pacific theaters will have five weeks from the day they open to students, Aug. 26, and the end of the fiscal year, on Sept. 30. Schools in the U.S. typically begin around the same time or earlier.

Educators will likely be furloughed one day of the week, according to the memo, and teachers say they expect it to be the same day of the week to minimize disruption to student schedules. Whether furlough days could be held during the three-day teacher planning period just before the opening of school is unclear.

Hull-Ryde, the DOD spokeswoman, said DODEA is still hashing out the specifics of how to implement furlough days.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Defense did not respond to questions by deadline.

Schools will be closed to students on furlough days, Fitzgerald wrote, but could be open to other employees other than teachers, including local nationals, principals and 12-month administrative support personnel. Educators are not allowed to contact students or parents about school-related matters on furlough days, the memo states.

Extra-curricular programs and activities will be adjusted around furlough days, Fitzgerald wrote, although they can be held after regular school hours on furlough days. Educators can be paid for that work as they normally would, Fitzgerald wrote.

Since announcing the possibility of teacher furloughs earlier this year, defense officials have vowed to minimize the impact of furloughs and keep schools accredited. They’ve shared little of their decision-making process, but have lowered the maximum number of furlough days over time, from 22 to 14 and now five. Some teachers say even that’s too many days.

“They should do better than that,” said Terese Sarno, a union representative in the Kaiserslautern area and a longtime teacher at military schools. “They need to be fully supportive of the fact you don’t play with education.”

Sarno and other teachers say they’ve heard little concern from parents, however. Military family advocates say the community continues to wait for concrete details, instead of proposals that continue to change.

Outside Grafenwöhr Elementary School on Wednesday, parents were of several opinions

Staff Sgt. Chris Smith, with the 18th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, and his wife, Rebecca, said five days is more crucial for schools such as Grafenwöhr, where their son, Gavin, attends kindergarten, than for schools they attended as children.

“With all the mandatory training and the in-service (days), it’s lengthened the school year,” Chris Smith said. “By the time he gets out this year, I’d have been out by two weeks already.”

Kris Lee, a mother of two boys at the school, said she was open to the low number of furlough days, but not the message it sent.

“Five days would be reasonable, but they shouldn’t be touching the schools at all,” she said.

Kevin Ivory, a parent with children at Grafenwöhr Elementary and a civilian employee who faces as many as 11 days of furlough, said he believes the unpaid days are necessary to handle cuts. He believes his children will cope with missed days, although he knows some parents will disagree.

“How good your kids are in school makes a big difference,” he said.

Twitter: @sjbeardsley

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