The resounding answer, according to responses due back from teachers, administrators, janitors, cooks, locksmiths, district cops and others on Jan. 28, was no.
"It was pretty sparse," said Paul Karlowicz, president of the Tucson Education Association, the union for teachers and other employees.
The tepid response, Karlowicz said, was "mainly because teachers are frustrated up to here. To them, there doesn't seem to be flexibility from the district, so the teachers said 'I'm not going to be flexible'" by working a free day.
The issue created the first major setback for Superintendent Roger Pfeuffer, the reluctant boss of the sprawling district who had enjoyed an extended honeymoon and high marks from teachers, the governing board and even the usual TUSD critics.
Still, Pfeuffer saw positive results in the 224 days, amounting to $68,000, donated by 163 of the district's 8,000 employees.
"I would respectfully disagree with Paul," Pfeuffer said.
At best, the proposal was hoped to generate $1.4 million in savings if all of the Tucson Unified School District employees who qualify for benefits worked a day without pay. That represented a big chunk of the $2.2 million TUSD needs to trim from a $319 million budget for the 2004-05 fiscal year that ends June 30. Budget planning for the next year indicates a deeper deficit, between $12 million and $13 million.
In a memo that was delivered to employees on Jan. 18, Pfeuffer requested a varying number of work-for-free days, based on combined family income: from one day for those with family incomes of less than $50,000 to four days for those making $100,000 or more.
"These are only suggestions and not a formula," the memo stated.
It didn't fly, some teachers say, because it also carried the thinly veiled threat from TUSD administration--including in a television appearance by Human Resource Director Sue Wybraniec--that layoffs were possible.
Karlowicz, a thoughtful and patient man who taught at University High before ascending to the TEA presidency, caught a little hell from his troops for not vociferously opposing Pfeuffer's proposal.
The two talked about the work-for-free plan and Karlowicz's response was muted because the proposal was voluntary.
Karlowicz acknowledged that the proposal further dampened teacher morale, but said he wanted TEA to maintain cool and level-headed. To the teachers he said, "Don't do it if you don't like it."
Mandatory compliance would have drawn stiff opposition from TEA, even though the union is "trying to position itself as being as supportive as possible" in addressing TUSD's fiscal problems, Karlowicz said.
Pfeuffer's solicitation didn't catch on, Karlowicz said, because TUSD administration has not given greater power to school site councils, composed of school administrators, teachers and parents, and has cut into teacher staff development time by requiring that teachers take time on Wednesdays, when students are let out early, to grade writing samples.
And Karlowicz said Pfeuffer might have seen a better response had he "torched the Bold Game Plan," a broad management scheme devised by former Superintendent Stan Paz and ratified by the TUSD board.
Pfeuffer saw reason for optimism in the total response. H viewed the $68,000 in pledges as "significant," and said the flood of money-saving suggestions was impressive. Between 400 and 500 tips poured in. They will be evaluated by TUSD committees and posted on the district Web site.
The donated day proposal was a "catalyst" for district-wide input and collaboration, Pfeuffer said.
"We're not at all displeased," Pfeuffer said.
Karlowicz shared that enthusiasm for the suggestions. He said the district, for example, must explore all possible uses for grant-funded employees previously thought to be tightly restricted. He added that he was hopeful that the issue would spur the Legislature to increase funding for education in general and TUSD in particular.
The financial crisis emerged from what Pfeuffer called a "confluence" of factors, including declining enrollment with students leaving TUSD for charter schools, and chronically unfunded mandates from the state and federal governments.
The competition from charter schools--and TUSD's failure to compete--also is drawing administration and the union together. Both Karlowicz and Pfeuffer are seeking collaborative efforts to combat the drain.
Karlowicz estimated that up to 8,000 students have left TUSD in the last four to five years, resulting in loss of as much of $41 million in state and federal aid.
Everything remains on the table for consideration, including a rollback of full-day kindergarten to half-day, fewer counselors and fewer librarians. But Pfeuffer said he is hopeful that attrition will provide sufficient room for cuts. Lack of operating cash, coupled by voters' rejection of a tax and budget override in November, also may mean a delay in full implementation of the construction projects voters did accept.
Pfeuffer is likely to get less-positive response on one solution--higher taxes for a district that has historically had the highest property taxes among the region's 16 school districts. He noted that TUSD did not increase taxes last summer when putting together its budget. But while tax rates dropped slightly, 5 percent, to roughly $593 for a home on the tax rolls at $100,000, TUSD's total levy actually increased by $2 million to $202.7 million.
Pfeuffer correctly noted that costs have increased. "Everything costs more," he said.
Personal and benefits, in particular, have exploded. Payroll expenses for TUSD soared 62.5 percent from $160 million in 1992 to $260 million in 2002. Last year, payroll costs were $283 million, despite the loss of 544 jobs.