City schools crackdown on teacher leave causing friction in district

Since our story last week on the $65 million in unused sick/vacation/personal leave the Baltimore City school system has paid out in the past five years, I've been receiving feedback from several city teachers who said that there is a new order in town about the use of sick leave, and it has many worried.

City educators have reported that in an effort to crackdown on teacher truancy, the district has directed that principals discourage teachers from using their sick leave, to the point where their absences could be reflected in their year-end evaluations. Baltimore Teacher Union officials confirmed that it is a message being communicated in schools across the district.

While school system officials vehemently denied that it has directed principals to penalize teachers for using their leave--which makes sense because that would not only breach union contracts, but in some cases be HIGHLY illegal--the school system said that it is targeting to cut down days missed by the most truant teachers.

The Sun posed the question to district officials after hearing from teachers who fear the new directive: the husband of one pregnant teacher called and said he was concerned about his wife's ability making doctor's appointments after her principal told staff that they needed to cut down on their leave; another teacher said she was reprimanded, she said, for using 5.5 days due to an illness that was directly caused by her school building.

District officials said these experiences reflect a gross misunderstanding of the message.

"What the CEO has said is that if we have employees (not just teachers) that are not coming to work and there is not a legitimate reason for those absences it should be reflected in one’s evaluation," said Tisha Edwards, Alonso's chief of staff. "I think that’s a reasonable expectation in EVERY profession."

Edwards said that she has also communicated with union heads about the crackdown, which she said is motivated by the importance of having a teacher in the classroom everyday.

"That’s what I expect as a parent for my son," said Edwards, the parent of a city school student.

Not to mention, the system also spends millions, last year $5.4, for emergency substitutes.

This isn't new, as I'd been hearing about this issue since the beginning of the school year, after city schools CEO Andres Alonso presented data on teacher absences in his annual "State of the Schools" address to principals.

The presentation highlighted that of the 878 teachers who missed more than 11 days in the 2010-2011 school year, 202 were on approved leave of absence, leaving 676 who should have been documented using the employee attendance policy.

According to the data, the majority of the city's teachers--about 1,940--only used between two and five sick-leave days; 1,197 used between six and 10; 283 used between 21 and 60 days; and 31 used more than 60.

Ten teachers were dismissed that year for chronic absences, he said.

Since then, Alonso apparently has continued to reinforce that the attendance policy needs to be enforced more forcefully--but not to the extent of being unreasonable, the system said.

"If ANY employee has a legitimate reason for an absence—which includes health related issues and personal business that must be handled; it’s OK and is not an evaluation issue," Edwards wrote. "Alternatively, if someone is chronically absent and has a history of lateness or unexcused absences then there will be accountability—that is what the CEO communicated to principals." 

BTU officials confirmed that many of its field representatives have been receiving several calls from teachers whose principals have communicated that they will be penalized for using sick time.

Per their union contract, teachers have one personal day per years; teachers in their first two years have 10 sick days, and those with three or more can take up to 20. The unions 12-month-employees (teachers are usually 10-month) have 18 sick-days, and 24 vacation-days a year.

"The BTU’s stance is, if you have sick/vacation/personal leave time to use, use it!" wrote Jessica Aldon, spokesman for the union. "Teachers and PSRPs who have been directed not to use their time or who have been penalized for using it, should contact their Field Rep immediately."

Aldon said that as of Friday, the union was not aware of any grievances filed due to this new policy, but that it has already come up in evaluation conversations.

She said that for the most part, "field reps have been able to talk to principals and inform them that they are misinterpreting their attendance policy and they usually will change their opinion or fix the teacher’s evaluation."

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