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Is teacher absenteeism really a problem?

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Is teacher absenteeism really a problem?
By Ryan Quinn, Staff writer   
  
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — State school board member Wade Linger recently said that in some counties teachers are missing more days than their students. State education officials acknowledge there may be a problem but couldn’t provide firm numbers to support the allegation.

In 2013, as legislators pushed a bill to address the alleged problem, then-state schools Superintendent Jim Phares said informal data showed Linger’s assertion was true for most counties — even though, according to state Department of Education data, more than 88,000 students, or 31 percent, were considered truant in the 2013-14 school year. Students are considered truant when they have five or more absences.

Thirty-nine of West Virginia’s 55 counties had more than a quarter of their students truant last school year. Twenty-four out of 55 had more than a third truant. Four counties — Gilmer, Lewis, McDowell and Wyoming — had more than half their students truant.

Phares, however, said he wanted more precise data about teacher absenteeism. Linger, who made his claim on the MetroNews “Talkline” program, told the Gazette in an email Monday that he’s working on getting a copy of a report highlighting the issue.

The state Department of Education doesn’t have teacher absenteeism data that’s comparable statewide, spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro wrote in a message to the Gazette Monday.

“There is not a standardized mechanism for reporting from county to county,” Cordeiro said. “We are currently working with a team to develop standardized reporting categories and should have concrete numbers by this summer.”

Dale Lee, president of the West Virginia Education Association teachers union, said Monday he still hasn’t seen data firmly establishing a high statewide rate of teacher absenteeism.

“I think there may be individual instances where it is being abused,” Lee said. “And those individuals should be dealt with themselves. But as a whole, I don’t think it’s a problem.”

Putnam County school district spokeswoman Rudi Raynes said the county doesn’t track teachers’ average yearly absences.

In Kanawha County — where 34 percent of students were truant last school year — school officials have for years cited a teacher absenteeism problem, and the local board has worked to address it.

Kanawha’s roughly 1,800 teachers averaged 6.5 unexcused absences last school year, according to Carol Hamric, the county’s human resources director. That’s almost the same as the average of 6.57 unexcused teacher absences in the 2006-07 academic year.

That year, Kanawha school board members approved — and teachers unions opposed — a policy that spells out consequences for employees who have more than five unauthorized absences. An employee’s sick day is considered unauthorized if he or she doesn’t submit a doctor’s excuse within five workdays of being absent.

Around that time, the school board also approved a policy of paying teachers for unused sick days, but Hamric said the practice has since been abandoned.

In Kanawha County, an employee’s sixth unexcused absence now leads to a conference. A seventh leads to another conference and documentation in the worker’s personnel file, and he or she may be issued a warning letter and referred to the employee assistance program. Eight or more unexcused absences results in a meeting with a central district office supervisor and possible development of an improvement plan.

Though the policy doesn’t state it, Hamric said employees can be fired for missing an excessive amount of work.

After five unauthorized absences, current policy also bans teachers from receiving further professional leave for things like job training and conferences.

State Sen. Ed Gaunch, R-Kanawha, referenced the issue in a candidate interview with Gazette editors in October, a month before he defeated the Democratic incumbent, Erik Wells, who himself worked to curb teacher absenteeism.

“If we’re going to pay them as professionals, then they need to act like professionals,” Gaunch said at the time, while also referencing low student academic performance.

But Gaunch — who said Friday, “I’m not an expert, and I’m not a teacher-basher at all” — said the issue was only mentioned in passing in this year’s legislative session. Staff in the House and Senate education committees said no bills were taken up to tackle the alleged problem.

Wells and former Sen. Clark Barnes, R-Randolph, sponsored legislation (SB514) two years ago that would have stopped teachers from being granted annual sick leave up front — teachers statewide currently get 15 sick days at the start of the school year.

Kanawha Schools Superintendent Ron Duerring backed the bill, saying that method encourages absenteeism. The bill would have allowed teachers to instead accrue 1.5 sick days per month over their regular 10 months of annual employment.

But the bill — which faced union criticism, again accompanied by doubting of the data — died with a split vote in Senate Education.

Less than six months later, the Kanawha school board unanimously voted to revise its employee attendance policy to add the requirement that teachers and other workers show proof of a doctor’s appointment within five days once they return to work.

“What we found was happening was that once people started getting letters warning them of their six unexcused absences, they started piling up the doctors’ excuses, which created a lot of hassles,” the school board’s lawyer, Jim Withrow, said at the time.

Duerring said Friday that Kanawha County still faces issues with having to pay for substitutes to cover for employees who start off a school year, use all 15 sick days and then quit before school gets out.

Lee said teachers deserve the sick days up front because they work with children, who often have runny noses and fevers.

“When things like this come up, it’s really deflecting away from the real issues and the problems that we’re having,” he said.