By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 23, 2010; 11:33 PM
The Loudoun County School Board had a plan: Furlough thousands of teachers for the first two days of Thanksgiving week and pocket $4.5 million in savings to help balance a strained budget.
But as some parents were trying to find child care, the board backtracked, allowing the teachers to stay home - with two bonus days of vacation and full pay.
"They disrupted the school year to save money, and they sent parents scrambling to figure out what to do with their kids," said Molly Milliken, a sales executive who on Tuesday dropped off her 8-year-old daughter, Abigail, at TopKick Martial Arts in the Broadlands section of Loudoun. It offered a special two-day camp during the furlough.
"The furlough became a paid vacation for teachers," Milliken said, laughing. "Lucky them."
The furlough plan, approved in April, took the unusual twist because of the combination of local activism and found money, in the form of a federal grant designed to protect the jobs of teachers or add more employees to stressed school payrolls nationwide.
But the Obama administration's program, which required that the money go to pay the salaries and benefits of educators, has helped underwrite a wide variety of initiatives nationwide - some of them having little to do with putting teachers in classrooms.
Loudoun's $9.4 million share of the grant money allowed the School Board to both save on its budget and pay teachers for days they didn't have to work. The board decision also allowed furloughed school employees, such as cleaning personnel, to be paid for their days off this week.
The move quieted months of controversy over the Thanksgiving week furlough, which had prompted teachers to threaten to picket in protest. Throughout the fall, some held signs reading "We're worth more" in front of several schools as parents dropped off their children. Calls to the Loudoun Education Association were not returned Tuesday.
The School Board approved the compromise earlier this month. The county Board of Supervisors, which oversees financial decisions for the schools, approved the move in a 5 to 3 vote last week, with one abstention.
But it was already too late to change the school calendar, officials said.
"We've had to make a lot of difficult decisions, and that was the most difficult one," said J. Warren Geurin, a School Board member representing Sterling. "Morale was low. We had to act. . . . And along came this money from the federal Department of Education."
Despite the concerns about the unusual use of the federal funds, many Loudoun parents expressed support for raising teacher salaries. Enrollment in the fast-growing county has risen more than 100 percent in the past 12 years.
"They haven't had a raise in a while, and they certainly deserve one. But it's strange that this happened so late and so quietly," said Rachel Chintala, whose daughter attends Pinebrook Elementary.
Others say that losing two days from the school year was not a major problem because the district's school day already is longer than the state requires, so Loudoun students spend more time in the classroom than do students in many other districts in Virginia.
The school district plans to spend the remaining $4.9 million of its federal grant on staffing next year. Already, Superintendent Edgar B. Hatrick III has warned that the School Board might be forced to cut some programs from its budget.
Meanwhile, the county's teachers union plans to continue pushing for raises. A Washington Area Boards of Education report released this month compared eight of the largest school districts in the region and ranked Loudoun last in both starting salaries and average salaries for teachers.
"Our teachers work overtime. They work way too hard," said Sandy Martin, a parent at Newton-Lee Elementary. "If they're happy, we're happy."