Employee leaves in the Douglas County School District have incurred general fund costs of more than $1 million in the last two years, according to the findings of a human resources report.
In the 2010-11 school year, the district spent $549,762 on substitute teachers. In the 2011-12 school year, those costs dropped to $515,307, following diminished staffing levels.
So far this fiscal year, from July 1 to the end of October, substitute teachers have cost the district $89,157.
Although the expenditures seem high, the average number of absences per employee is at or below what is contractually allowed for both classified and certified staff.
In the 2010-11 school year, there was an average of 11 absences per classified employee, and 15 absences per certified employee.
The following year, the workforce shrunk by 35 employees, and the average number of absences stayed exactly the same.
Those averages, however, included professional days for grant-funded training, which did not divert money from the general fund. Reviewing just sick days, including doctor appointments, family illness and bereavement, human resources computed an average of 8.4 absences per classified employee in 2010-11 and nine absences per certified employee in the same year. In 2011-12, the averages for sick time were 8.5 absences per classified employee and 9.7 absences per certified employee.
Contractually, classified employees get 11.25 to 15 sick days a year. In the case of five or more consecutive absences, a doctor's release may be required.
The district also awards an additional personal day to those classified employees who use no more than three sick days during the contract year.
Contractually, teachers receive 15 days of sick leave per school year. Like classified staff, they may have to obtain a doctor's release after five consecutive absences.
Both employee units can bank sick days, though the maximum limit for each varies. Any accumulation of sick days over the limit goes into a district-wide bank for emergency use. Retiring staff members with at least 10 years of service can cash out remaining sick days for $25 each.
The leave usage report looked at sick days, personal days, professional days and unpaid leave over two years and the start of this year.
For classified staff, the majority of leave came from sick time: 2,602 sick days among 309 employees in 2010-11, and 2,548 sick days among 300 employees in 2011-12.
For certified staff, sick time was also the main driver of absences, generating 3,874 sick days among 427 employees in 2010-11, and 3,873 sick days among 401 employees in 2011-12.
The second largest driver of absences among teachers was the grant-funded professional development. In 2010-11, such training generated 1,395 absences. The following year, that number dropped to 1,103.
Legally required absences among teachers, such as jury duty or coaching duties, accounted for 266 absences in 2010-11, and 264 absences the following year.
Human Resources Director Rich Alexander presented the report to board members Nov. 13 and made several recommendations, such as offering professional development outside of school days, holding supervisors accountable for verifying absences and normalizing attendance, and negotiating with unions on such issues.
Regarding grant-funded professional development, Alexander said the real issue is taking teachers out of their classrooms so frequently.
"We either have to pay for a sub during the day or a teacher outside the day, so it's not so much a cost issue," he said. "Our concern is that there is nothing better than a regular teacher with kids in the classroom. Our subs are great, but it's not the same. I think most teachers would agree with me: they want to be with their kids."
In an email to The Record-Courier, Douglas County Professional Education Association President Brian Rippet agreed with Alexander on this point.
"There is a significant number of school days teachers are away from their classrooms due to professional development," he said. "These are in addition to the scheduled collaboration/development days in which no students attend school. We need to move to a model that does not take teachers away from their classrooms in order to acquire new skills and improve their practice."
In regards to sick day usage in the report, Rippet said that sick leave itself is a "catch-all category."
"Pregnancy leave for both father and mother are taken from this individually accumulated pool," he said. "A new mother can take 40 days off from their sick leave account. This is in addition to any appointments needed before the birth, so a new child in the DCSD family can really skew the average teacher leave usage. Also bereavement is taken from this account. So upon death of a family member, up to 10 days of sick leave could be accessed. Likewise, caring for a sick child or other family member comes from this pool."
Furthermore, he pointed out that catastrophic illnesses can inflate the average.
"A cancer treatment can cause a person to use all of their accumulated leave for treatment, often 100-plus days saved over many years, and also access some time from the district-wide sick leave bank, which 90 percent of the teachers are contributors," he said.
Nancy Hamlett, president of the Douglas County Support Staff Organization, noted that classified staff members are not substituted for until after five consecutive days of absence. In other words, costs associated with substitute teaching disproportionately arise from certified employee absences.
Alexander qualified this a bit, explaining that some classified positions have to be filled immediately, such as a school nurse.
"There are exceptions to that based on student need," he said. "For a nurse, we would provide that sub right away."
Alexander said the impetus of the report was the last budget cycle, when board members raised concerns about so many general fund dollars going to substitute teachers.
"I think if we are going to be good stewards of the taxpayers' money, we need to make sure our employees have good attendance," Alexander said. "It makes a difference for our kids."