The Wilkes-Barre Area School District is using a furlough process required by a 2017 state law to determine which teachers lose their jobs.

The legislation allows school districts to furlough teachers for economic reasons and requires furlough determinations based on performance reviews and seniority within evaluation groupings. Seniority was previously the determining factor.

“Seniority remains the only truly objective measure by which furlough decisions should occur,” said Chris Lilienthal, spokesman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association, the teachers union with 178,000 members in the state.

The Wilkes-Barre Area union has 475 members. Up to 37 faced furloughs when the school board voted March 1 on a resolution authorizing furloughs.

Superintendent Brian Costello said 30 are now being furloughed because of retirement decisions made this month. Retirements and a state funding increase for the next school year can reduce the amount of Wilkes-Barre Area teachers who lose jobs.

The furloughs are the result of the plan to merge the district’s three highs schools — GAR, Meyers and Coughlin — into a new consolidated high school in Plains Twp. The district is wrapping up the $121 million construction project, so the new high school can open in September for the 2021-22 school year.

The furloughs came up at Monday’s school board meeting. Amber Jacobs, a district Spanish teacher for 13 years, addressed board members over the phone during the meeting, which was closed to the public and streamed online due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m one of the many faces affected by the recent furlough,” Jacobs said. “I am speaking today to open up the minds of the board and community to the unfair practices of the new law allowing teachers to be furloughed based on observation and evaluation and not just seniority.”

Act 55 of 2017 creates four categories of educators, based on their most recent two consecutive years of evaluation results. The categories are:

  • Category 1: Educators with two consecutive ratings of “unsatisfactory.”
  • Category 2: Educators in which the two most recent annual performance ratings includes one that was “unsatisfactory” and one that was “satisfactory.”
  • Category 3: Educators with either consecutive ratings of “proficient” or a combination of one rating of “proficient” or “distinguished” and one rating of “needs improvement.”
  • Category 4: Educators with two consecutive ratings of “distinguished” or a combination of one rating of “proficient” and one rating of “distinguished.”

Temporary professional employees are furloughed first, and educators in category 1 are furloughed next. Furloughs then proceed in order through categories 2, 3 and 4.

“An evaluation many times is based on political connection and the opinion of a principal or coordinator who is not certified in and who does not know the standards and methods of specific subject areas being taught. …. the only way this law could be fairly used and without reproach is to have observations and evaluations completed by outside non-biased subject-based evaluators,” Jacobs said.

The 2017 law added a fifth cause for educator furloughs: “economic reasons that require a reduction in professional employees.” The other causes are a significant drop in student enrollment, educational programs are curtailed or eliminated, schools are consolidated or when school districts are reorganized.

Wilkes-Barre Area is cutting its secondary staff size for economic reasons and because the high school consolidation will reduce the need for some secondary teachers. District officials have said reducing personnel costs by more than $4 million a year will help the district pay off the debt from building the new high school.

“There is a widespread misconception that the state only allows poor or ineffective teachers to become furloughed,” Mike Komorek, president of the Wilkes-Barre Area teachers union, said at Monday’s meeting. “There also is a misconception that these teachers are young or novice teachers. While some of the teachers let go were newer to the profession, there were also teachers with nearly and significantly over 15 years of experience.”

School Board member Therese Schiowitz has been a critic of the high school consolidation project, but she voted for the furlough resolution. She said the district had to follow through on reducing staff because the board and administration did not “pursue options opposed to consolidating.”

Schiowitz concluded the furlough process was essentially fair, noting administrators didn’t know the names of the employees when determining who was getting furloughed.

“In a truly fair world, evaluations should be done by a non-biased panel,” she noted.

Schiowitz also said “the timing of the furloughs will allow those affected to check out employment options for the 2021-22 school year.” But Jacobs said “being furloughed for supposed less-than-perfect evaluations puts in the minds of other districts that to hire us would be a risk and not an asset.”

Act 55 maintains “seniority as a determining factor in furlough decisions” within the four groupings, and that addressed some concerns raised by PSEA and other education groups in 2017, Lilienthal said.

“As a result, seniority remains a determining factor in furlough decisions for a majority of, though not all, educators,” Lilienthal said.

Other bills introduced in 2017 “would have allowed furloughs of any educator for any reason at all,” Lilienthal said.

State Rep. Gerald Mullery, D-119, Newport Twp., said the educator evaluation system in Act 55 is “too subjective and arbitrary.”

“The feedback I have received from educators and administrators since its enactment has confirmed my original fears,” Mullery said.

State Rep. Mike Carroll, D-118, Avoca, said he’s concerned about the law’s impact on the Wilkes-Barre Area School District community.

“Reliance on unfair evaluations for staffing decisions is a policy I vehemently opposed,” Caroll said. “Sadly, the Wilkes-Barre Area School District must comply with the provisions of Act 55. As a result, extremely challenging staff decisions were made even more difficult for the school board and administration of the school district.”

State Sen. John Yudichak, I-14, Swoyersville, didn’t vote for Act 55 and noted he voted for Act 39 of 2018. That act “made changes to the teacher furlough process to ensure that experienced educators with multiple certifications would not be furloughed simply because they teach in a program area that the district is cutting,” Yudichak said.

Costello said Wilkes-Barre Area is currently unable “to repurpose and sustain those employees” being furloughed because of “severe underfunding.”

Secondary teachers can avoid furloughs if Wilkes-Barre Area receives more state funding so it can employ more teachers in elementary schools, Costello said. He is urging state legislators to support Gov. Tom Wolf’s proposal to use the state’s fair-funding formula to determine basic education subsidy amounts.

Under Wolf’s proposal, Wilkes-Barre Area’s basic-education subsidy would go up by almost $28.7 million compared to the 2019-20 subsidy.