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Sunday, March 31, 2013

How many absences are too many? Nashua Board of Education members want more info on teacher absence data

NASHUA – When Board of Education member Dennis Ryder thinks of the time he worked as a union representative decades ago, he remembers fights to ensure that workers were entitled to days off when they were sick.

Public employers argued that access to sick days was a luxury. The unions argued that it was a necessity to be treated fairly. ...

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NASHUA – When Board of Education member Dennis Ryder thinks of the time he worked as a union representative decades ago, he remembers fights to ensure that workers were entitled to days off when they were sick.

Public employers argued that access to sick days was a luxury. The unions argued that it was a necessity to be treated fairly.

Today, public employee unions – from teachers and support staff to police and fire personnel – receive 10 or more paid sick days annually. And to Ryder, the very notion of what previous unions fought for has been tipped on its head.

“The unions fought very hard and very long to get sick days, and somewhere in between, the idea of a sick day became that it was an additional paid day to be used for sickness but also to be accumulated and paid in cash,” he said. “That’s a very different proposition … I am for the original intention 100 percent, but I am not for saving days to be paid in cash, nor am I in favor of saving those days to be taken in the form of severance pay.

“I just think things have gone too far.”

Ryder, a member of the board’s contract negotiating team, said he is interested in trying to bring some change to the number of sick days provided in teacher contracts.

Earlier this month, The Telegraph reported on the number of sick days that Nashua teachers were given and how many they used in the 2011-12 school year.

Data provided by the School District showed that about 1 in 4 teachers used 10 or more sick days last year.

The information drew a mixed response from Board of Education members. However, most board members agreed that too many sick days are not good for Nashua’s students, and all of them wanted to know more.

“While I tend to agree … that this is not a major concern, I’m going to try to follow up to better understand what is going on,” said board member Thomas Vaughn.

The Telegraph also wants to know more.

The district provided plenty of in-depth information on teacher absences, including the number of sick days accrued and used for each teacher, as well as the number of personal days.

But because the information did not include the specific dates on which a sick day was used, it was difficult to determine whether there was any abuse of the system, by teachers frequently taking a sick day on a Monday or Friday, for example.

The Telegraph has since filed a Right-to-Know request for this information.

Some board members, meanwhile, are getting more information of their own.

Board President Robert Hallowell said he’s interested in looking at the issue through the lens of substitute teaching.

He has asked district officials to provide the board with more information on how the district hires and assigns substitutes, what is expected of these employees, and what kind of support they receive from the schools.

He said people often worry about the interruption of learning that can come with a snow day or other school cancellation, but the same interruption can occur when a teacher is out for a day.

“It’s not an insignificant number of days,” he said of the teacher absence data. “People get sick, and it’s an environment where you don’t really want people to come into the office if they’re really sick, but I want to make sure we have reasonable replacements for those days.”

Board member Kim Muise said she’s a firm believer that teachers being out of the classroom impacts student learning. However, she doesn’t think the district has an issue with teacher absences.

“Generally, if there was a red flag, a parent or someone would bring it to us, and I haven’t heard any complaints,” she said.

In addition, Muise said teachers are more likely to get sick than a lot of other workers, since they spend so much time surrounded by young students.

Board member William Mosher said he’s not sure teachers need 11 sick days each year, but that teacher absences didn’t appear to be a top issue.

“We have a large group of employees that work in the district, more than 1,000 with teachers and other workers,” he said. “When you have a group that large, you have to expect that some will be older, and that their needs will be very diverse … I think that for the most part, our teachers are very industrious and have a love for the kids and want to do the right thing.”

Still, most board members agreed that it is important for the public to have access to information about teacher leave time.

While some questioned the level of detail that community members should know about how teachers use their sick days and personal time, many said it’s simply part of the job as a public employee.

“You have to know that when you go into the field,” Muise said. “There’s a lot of things that the public has a right to know.”

Board members will likely discuss these issues in the coming months, as district officials provide more information on teacher absences and the use of substitute teachers.

Superintendent Mark Conrad said the district has already discussed looking at its assignment and training practices for substitute teachers.

Still, it’s unlikely that the school system will see any major changes as a result, particularly in the area of leave time allowances.

Ryder said he wants to see teacher contracts amended to include fewer sick days each year, but even he doubts that such a change will go through.

“I think that the unions – not just the teachers unions, but all the municipal unions – have gotten to this point where it’s almost impossible to take it out,” Ryder said of leave time permitted under union contracts. “It looks like past negotiators have stuck us with this particular problem.”

Danielle Curtis can be reached
at 594-6557 or dcurtis@nashua
telegraph.com. Also follow Curtis
on Twitter (Telegraph_DC).