A major exposé by The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Monday, June 16, 2003
When teacher's out
By David Joyner and Shawn Boburg
Demands on Massachusetts school teachers have never been greater, and the stakes have never been higher.
Their students must pass the MCAS competency test to graduate. Their schools must respond to mandates of the state's Education Reform law, which has sent hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars their way since the law was enacted 10 years ago this August. Their districts, struggling with the effects of a weak economy, must find ways to cut costs.
But even with pressures to meet higher standards on shrinking budgets, teachers spend far less time on the job than most workers, thanks to liberal leave benefits granted decades ago.
The average North of Boston teacher spent more than two weeks away from class during the 2001-02 school year, or 11.4 school days, according to attendance rolls from 17 public school districts obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. newspapers.
Most of those absences -- an average of 7.6 days -- came after teachers called in sick.
An analysis of attendance records for the nearly 6,600 teachers in the 17 North of Boston school districts shows some are taking advantage of leave benefits, forcing administrators to find substitutes, disrupting student learning, stretching already strained budgets and costing state and local taxpayers millions of additional dollars. The analysis found:
r Half of the region's teachers missed at least a week's worth of school on sick leave during the 2001-02 year, the latest for which complete records were available. Nearly one in 10 missed three weeks or more.
r While the average North of Boston teacher called in sick 7.6 days, teachers in several districts used far more leave. Those at Greater Lawrence Technical High School in Andover used an average of 9.5 sick days, the most of any district. Beverly teachers were close behind with an average of 9.4 sick days, while those in Lawrence used 9.1 sick days.
r Sick leave in all but one district spiked on Mondays and Fridays. Teachers also used sick time to extend vacations; about 43 percent took at least one sick day next to a school break or long holiday weekend.
The region's attendance records also show patterns that suggest individual sick leave abuse. The analysis found more than 150 teachers who used a disproportionate amount of sick time on Mondays, Fridays or next to regularly scheduled breaks. Those teachers used a week's worth of sick time or more in 2001-02, at least three-quarters of which came before or after weekends or holidays.
Though sick leave accounted for most of their time off, teachers left class for other reasons. Most contracts allow time to tend to personal business or family emergencies, deepening absenteeism by more than two days for the average teacher.
Teacher training also sapped class time. In Newburyport, the average teacher missed nearly three weeks' worth of school -- the most of any district -- thanks in part to a dense professional development schedule. Each of the city's teachers spent an average of nearly five days training, which also was the most of any district in the region.
All those absences added up, the analysis found. More than 75,000 days taken throughout the region, including nearly 50,400 sick days, represented more than enough time to fill every teaching slot in the Gloucester school district for the entire year.
In a state known for its strong public employee unions, teachers in Massachusetts enjoy some of the most generous sick leave benefits in the nation. Those North of Boston typically get 15 days a year and accumulate unused time.
That is in addition to time off for family business or professional training, as well as the long weekends and breaks that punctuate a work year of about 180 days.
But many teacher contracts leave the schoolhouse doors open to abuse, offering scant detail about how sick days are monitored, what happens to those who misuse them or even how a sick day is defined.
Interviews with teachers -- including some who took several weeks of sick leave last year -- confirm that those who call in sick aren't always ill.
"I can't say I was always sick," said retired Danvers teacher Walter Murphy.
"Every now and then, once a year, I might have taken a day. Something might have come up, and it was too late to take a personal day," Murphy said, referring to the time allowed teachers -- usually with advance notice -- for personal business that cannot be scheduled outside school hours.
But Murphy said he was nursing cluster migraine headaches during most of the 21 days he called in sick during his last year as a fourth-grade teacher at Riverside Elementary. "When I get them, I can't function at all," he said.
Some teachers said they tap sick leave for "mental health" days.
Others, like Andover High School teacher Albert Cayot, acknowledged using sick time to extend vacations.
"I'm sure other people do, too," said Cayot, who used 14 sick days during 2001-02 and said he usually takes time off from school to care for his elderly parents.
Like many of the region's teacher contracts, Andover's does not expressly define sick days. However, it notes that cases of abuse can be investigated by a board in charge of a sick day bank for teachers who exhaust their leave.
But Cayot said, "I've been around long enough that I'm not afraid of what anyone thinks of me. That's the security that comes with teaching in a district for 28 years."
Such absences slow things down in any office, pushing telephone calls to voice mail and forcing other workers to pick up the slack. But the consequences are especially dire when teachers miss work.
While some schools try to fill teaching holes with certified educators, most classes are left to the care of substitutes who serve as little more than baby sitters.
"You bring someone in to basically watch the kids," said Greater Lawrence Tech Superintendent Frank S. Vacirca. "And they're nice people, but they may not be an English teacher or even have any educational experience."
Suzanne Piscitello, a Lawrence School Committee member and former assistant superintendent, pointed to a "direct correlation between student learning and teacher attendance."
"You don't have to be Einstein to figure that out," Piscitello said.
Research has also tied teacher absences to test scores, though attendance records North of Boston show no apparent link to results on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test.
More clear are the effects absences have on school budgets: North of Boston schools spent $8 million on substitutes during the 2001-02 year -- 17 percent more than three years earlier. It costs millions more to "buy back" sick time from teachers who don't use all the sick days their contracts allow.
Despite the costs, little is done to keep teacher absenteeism in check.
State officials closely follow attendance among students, but not their teachers. State Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said it is an "important factor," however, which the state may follow more closely amid growing efforts to hold schools accountable.
"It ought to be paid attention to, because stability of teacher attendance has a direct effect on student performance," Driscoll said. "If there are abuses, they should be fixed because, eventually, it directly affects student achievement."
Driscoll said oversight is best left to local principals and administrators.
But only a few of the region's teachers contracts describe how sick days are monitored or require doctors notes for long periods of leave. Most say little about the benefit, and interviews with school officials show that little is done to police the system.
Some administrators, particularly those in urban districts, acknowledge teacher absenteeism has become a problem.
"I'm profoundly concerned about what appears on the surface to be pervasive and abusive sick day use," said Lawrence Superintendent Wilfredo T. Laboy, whose district was forced to cover for 68.3 absent teachers on a typical day last year.
Laboy said Lawrence schools employ "a lot of committed teachers," though he believes its sick leave benefits invite a sense of entitlement.
The situation is especially "despairing," he said, given a Lawrence High School policy of flunking students who miss class more than 10 times in a semester.
"You can't ask kids for 100-percent attendance when you're not doing it yourself," he said. "Kids are smart, smart enough to know when a teacher isn't walking the walk."
Vacirca, the Greater Lawrence Tech superintendent, stopped short of saying his school has a sick leave abuse problem. But the Eagle-Tribune attendance analysis, he said, "lays it out pretty clearly."
"Maybe these figures are a wake-up call, no pun intended, that we need to get up and get to school," he said.
Other school officials and teachers see little cause for alarm, however, and dismiss the suggestion that sick leave is abused, at least on a widespread basis.
Peabody Superintendent James Gaylord said abuse is possible "in any organization that issues over 1,000 checks a week" but he doesn't see a problem "on the whole" in his district. Gaylord said his district's average of 8.6 sick days per teacher is likely inflated by the fact that, rather than give personal days, Peabody's contract allows teachers to tap sick leave for an unlimited number of "unavoidable" absences, such as family emergencies.
In Newburyport, where teachers missed class an average of 14.5 days, including those spent on training, Superintendent Mary Murphy said sick leave abuse is isolated.
"There are so many who do not abuse it, and many who never take sick days or take so few, that it's negligible," she said.
Educators also point to a variety of reasons teachers may be sick more often than workers in other jobs -- exposure to germ-carrying children, poor air quality in some schools and the stress of being "on stage" at the head of the class among them.
Gloucester Superintendent Thomas Consolati, whose teachers used an average of five sick days, the lowest of any district surveyed, said leadership also makes a difference. "If a school system has jerks for administrators," he said, "there will be more sick days and personal days and everything else taken."
Even more influential in tallies of teacher sick leave use are those who tap sick day stocks accumulated through the years to keep paychecks coming while they take maternity leave or cope with long-term illnesses.
Anita Drueke, a special education teacher at the Lawrence's Arlington School, said "young gals have pregnancies" while "nuts and bolts go bad" for older teachers.
"It's not always your fault," said Drueke, who used 22 sick days in 2001-02. "You wake up in the morning and you can't get up."
Sick leave use North of Boston drops to an average of 6.2 days once teachers with records suggesting such extended absences are excluded. The effect is greatest in Beverly, where the average number of sick days used in 2001-02 falls from 9.4 to 6.1 per teacher.
The effects of age on teachers may be especially exaggerated as a legacy of Proposition 2 1/2, which capped property taxes cities and towns could collect and forced districts to slash budgets and lay off then-young teachers in the 1980s.
Peabody Federation of Teachers President Ed Sapienza said schools now don't see many teachers in those middle age groups "because Proposition 2 1/2 led to them being laid off."
No matter their estimation of teacher absenteeism, educators say there's little hope -- or need -- to change labor contracts that provide for it, even in a state that is more generous with teacher sick leave than many others.
"Once the unions get something, you never get it back," said Lawrence School Committee member Nancy Kennedy, who said the 15 sick days the city gives each of its teachers is "high."
But Massachusetts Teachers Association spokesman Bob Duffy said districts negotiated those benefits, too.
In fact, districts have often padded sick days instead of giving pay increases, he said, adding that teachers make less than workers in comparable jobs.
The average salary for Massachusetts teachers two years ago was more than $48,600, according to the most recent state Department of Education listing.
"If (districts) see a problem and they're unwilling to negotiate it," Duffy said, "then shame on them."
Some schools have taken steps to keep teacher absenteeism in check, by aggressively policing sick leave abuse or offering annual attendance incentives.
In Haverhill, more teachers may be showing up for school since the district, starting in 2001-02, sliced its substitute teacher budget by 40 percent. The average teacher in that city used 6.7 sick days that year.
"We essentially assigned every employee in the district two substitutes," said Superintendent Arthur W. Tate Jr. "And it was up to each principal on any given day to either replace people calling in sick with a sub, or have someone in the building fill it."
A side effect of the cost-saving measure may have been to put peer pressure on teachers thinking of calling in sick, said Tate, because they didn't want to force their peers to cover for them.
But Tate, who said "there's not much abuse" in his district, added that vigilance may be the key to keeping teacher absences in check.
"If there's abuse, I think you cant stop it by identifying it and appealing to someone's professionalism," he said. "But you have to confront it. Confronting it is a way to control it."
Staff writers Marc Fortier, Gail McCarthy and Dan Hackett contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Monday, June 16, 2003
Few in work force match sick day benefit
By Shawn Boburg, Staff Writer
When it comes to sick time, few have it better.
Teachers get more sick leave than workers in most other industries -- private or public, union or nonunion. More than the average behind-a-desk, white-collar worker. More than laborers and service employees. More than most private school teachers. Even more than nurses, who are constantly exposed to illnesses.
At the same time, because of summer and holiday breaks, teachers work a shorter year -- around 180 days. And, unlike most private sector workers, they accumulate unused sick time from year to year, in some cases stockpiling hundreds of days during their careers.
Most teachers North of Boston and in Massachusetts get 15 sick days a year, which is slightly more than the national average.
Surveys show that is as many days as private workers get for vacation, sick time and all other leave combined.
"If your teachers are generally getting as many sick days as other people are getting total days off for a full year of work, it looks like teachers are doing better in terms of sick leave," said Jim Jaffe, spokesman for the Employee Benefit Research Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan research organization.
But educators and teacher advocates argue that comparing teacher benefits to private industry is unfair.
Teachers are underpaid, they contend, and need time off because schools don't have short-term disability insurance.
"In general, if you look at the work force, a lot of times (teachers) bank their sick time for maternity leave. A lot of people use it to take care of a relative. It's kind of a quality of life issue," said Leslie Getzinger, a spokeswoman for the American Federation of Teachers.
A sampling of local private employers shows sick time varies but does not approach what public school teachers get.
Full-time Banknorth employees, for example, get six paid sick days each year, with no carryover.
At Malden Mills, union employees -- typically machine operators, shippers and truck drivers -- get two personal days to use as sick time. That grows to three days after 10 years at the company and four days after 25 years.
Malden Mills' nonunion employees get 10 days a year, without accumulation. Nonunion office workers get a maximum of 40 hours, or five days, of sick time per year without carryover.
At Raytheon, starting employees get sick time, vacation and all other paid leave lumped into one package: 15 days, without carryover. That number grows with tenure.
Jonathan Lawrence of Sonolite Plastics Corporation in Gloucester said his employees accrue four hours a month for up to six days a year. Workers can use that time for sick leave or personal days.
"I don't want someone to lie if they're not sick but need a day off," Lawrence said. "Sick days are almost something old-fashioned. I think a mental health day is more needed. I take one from time to time."
Nationally, the average full-time worker at a private company gets 14 days of paid time off each year, according to Ryan Johnson, public affairs manager of the nonprofit research organization WorldatWork, which surveyed 822 private companies of all sizes, across all industries, with union and nonunion workers. Those 14 days include sick time, vacation, personal leave and all other forms of paid time off.
Teachers match that number with sick leave alone, getting an average of 14 days of paid days, according to a 1998 survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most also get other leave; teachers North of Boston usually get two or three so-called personal days to use at their discretion each year.
Public school teachers also get more sick time than their counterparts in local private schools.
Teachers at Phillips Academy in Andover get one sick day for every month of their employment, or 10 every school year. Sick leave can accumulate up to 100 days and is meant to be used as an insurance policy for extended illness, said spokeswoman Sharon Britton.
Faculty members at Brooks School in North Andover, meanwhile, are not subject to any written sick day policy.
Those teachers, many of whom live in campus dorms, notify administrations when they are too sick to attend class. The Brooks administration said the policy has worked well and they have had no cases of faculty abuse of sick leave privileges.
Sick leave benefits for city and town workers are closest to those of teachers, though most municipal employees work a full year.
The average municipal employee nationally receives 13.3 to 13.7 sick days per year, depending on tenure, according to a 1998 Bureau of Labor Statistics survey. In cities and towns North of Boston, 15 sick days appears to be the norm.
Lawrence police officers get 15 sick days and accumulate up to 400 days. Upon retirement, officers can sell back half of the accumulated days at a full-day's salary. In Salem and Gloucester, government workers receive 15 sick days after a year of employment, in addition to three personal days.
Jaffe, of the Employee Benefits Research Institute, said government employees usually get more of their compensation in the form of fringe benefits. Jaffe said towns and cities often say to teachers, "If you work for us, the bad news is you're never going to get $100,000 a year, but the good news is we'll give you a lot of sick days."
Teacher advocates said that's important to consider when measuring benefits.
A study commissioned by the Massachusetts Teachers Association two years ago concluded that teachers earn $20,000 less than their private sector counterparts who are required to have master's degrees, according to MTA spokesman Bob Duffy.
Duffy said sick leave benefits for teachers and workers in private industries are "apples and oranges."
"It's not a relevant comparison," he said. "Especially because teachers are exposed to confined areas with large numbers of sick kids."
A Massachusetts Nurses Association spokeswoman said most nurses get between 12 and 16 sick days -- for a full work year.
Duffy countered that hospitals have sophisticated ventilation systems to wipe out air-borne diseases.
Joe Robinson, author of a book about balancing work with life outside the office titled "Work to Live: The Guide to Getting a Life," said many people take public sector jobs in a trade-off, receiving more time off but less money and prestige. His research found the average employee at a large private company gets 10 sick days a year.
"It's well known to everyone that teachers are the only profession that maintain those summer vacations of youth," Robinson said.
Gail McCarthy and David Joyner contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Monday, June 16, 2003
Teachers cite stress, exposure to germs
By Shawn Boburg, Staff Writer
The sniffling and sneezing kids. The stress. The exhaustion. The poor pay.
It might sound like a "poor me" attitude, North Andover's Greg Pascoe conceded. But those are some of the reasons teachers need so many sick days in a 180-day year punctuated by frequent holiday breaks.
Sure, Pascoe said, there are "a few bad apples" who abuse the system and stunt student learning by taking so-called mental health days on Mondays and Fridays, or extending their holidays by a day or two, or taking it easy close to retirement.
"But that's an American problem," the teachers union vice president said.
An Eagle-Tribune analysis of sick leave use by teachers in 17 districts north of Boston raises questions about the scope of sick leave abuse. The analysis of teacher attendance during the 2001-02 school year shows, for example, that 43 percent of the region's teachers took at least one sick day next to a holiday or weekend.
One in five teachers took two school weeks' worth of sick leave or more.
Interviews with teachers indicate a wide range of attitudes toward sick leave use, from cavalier to conscientious.
Asked whether 15 sick days is too generous, educators counter that they are underpaid for a job Pascoe described as more grueling than his former job loading and unloading trucks.
"Sometimes you're just so burned out you have to take a day and sleep all day," said Pascoe, who took 6.5 sick days last year. "It's such a draining thing because you have 25 different personalities who all day long are demanding your attention and you have to constantly engage them. So there are those times when you just need a break to be fresh again."
Bruce Challinor, a 24-year culinary arts teacher at Greater Lawrence Technical High School in Andover, took off 20.5 days in 2001-02, eight of them sandwiched around weekends or holidays.
"Over 25 years, I've taken a few mental health days," Challinor said.
The stress of the job has increased with the social problems that students bring to school, especially in urban districts, he said.
"The kids ain't like they used to be," Challinor said. "A teacher is a very dedicated person to get in there and deal with these kids every day."
Their contract with Greater Lawrence Tech gives teachers 13 sick days plus three personal days per year. The school also allows teachers to bank unused sick days. When they retire, it "buys back" a third of their accumulated days, up to a maximum of 70.
But Challinor, who has banked only 52.5 days over his career, said teachers need more of an incentive not to use all the sick days they are entitled to.
"The bottom line is people are saying to themselves 'Those are my days. I've earned those days. So why get a third of your salary for them?' Think about it. Wouldn't you take the sick days?"
A handful of the region's school districts, including Beverly, Gloucester, Andover and North Andover, offer no buyback, although teachers can bank unused sick days.
Richard Kiberd retired from North Andover High last year after 33 years, with 179 unused sick days in the bank.
With no incentive to save any more, he was out sick 16 days in his last year, 9 of them on Mondays and Fridays.
"Even though last year I took more than in other years, in good conscience, you are cheating the kids," he said. "I had pangs of conscience (when I missed a day) because you're shortchanging the kids."
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
By Marc Fortier, Staff Writer
Paper airplanes zip through the air. A rubber band snaps the substitute teacher in the back of the head. A student asks to go to the bathroom and disappears for the rest of the class.
For years, students have rejoiced whenever they walked into class and heard those two magical words -- substitute teacher. And for $80 a day, substitute teaching a group of unruly students can be a harrowing ordeal. Many try it once and never come back.
"The old tradition of let's abuse the sub is one of the longest running themes in public education," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
But how close is that image to reality? How much actual learning is taking place when a teacher is sick and a substitute fills in?
Administrators, teachers and experts agree that students learn less when a regular teacher is out. But just how much, they say, depends on a substitute's ability to keep order and teach and on what schools do to minimize the effects of absenteeism.
Lou Perullo, a Peabody School Committee member and former Peabody superintendent, said "not much really gets done" when a class is left with a sub.
"In terms of direction, it's less of an instructional day no matter who the substitute is," he said. "Sometimes it's a total loss; most of the time there's a minimal loss."
Brenda Berry, a Beverly substitute teacher who usually fills in at the elementary level, admits that when she subs at the high school, it is more like a study period than an actual class.
Research backs up the common view that students are hurt when teachers miss class and subs fill in.
Cornell University professor Ronald G. Ehrenberg found links between teacher and student absenteeism when he researched attendance records for 381 districts in New York State, excluding those in New York City.
The two are related, he said, "in the sense that if teachers aren't showing up for school, students are less motivated to come to school."
That, in turn, affects students' performance, including their scores on standardized tests.
Although there was no strong correlation between teacher absenteeism in North of Boston schools and student scores on the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System test, the pattern has been traced in other parts of the country.
"Teacher absenteeism is highly associated with poor academic performance," said James Bruno, a University of California at Los Angeles professor who looked into attendance at more than 500 Los Angeles schools.
Chris Martes, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said "there's an obvious drop-off. I'll never pretend that a substitute teacher is as good as the person they're replacing."
Most local school officials agree.
Danvers Superintendent Betty Allen said much depends on a substitute teacher's comfort with the material.
"I would say you might get half of what you'd get in a normal day," Allen said. "Kids know the routines. They'll do a lot on their own. But it's still not their regular teacher."
Part of the educational drop-off may be because substitutes must devote energy to keeping order in the classroom, instead of teaching.
Salem Superintendent Herb Levine said there are times when having a substitute teacher "is like waving a red banner in front of a bull."
In Lawrence, one substitute teacher's attempt to keep the class quiet last Valentine's Day allegedly turned into a dangerous game, when she taped a group of second-graders' mouths shut with yellow masking tape. She was fired and faces 10 counts of misdemeanor assault and battery.
Many schools officials say they have mitigated the effects of teacher absenteeism by hiring permanent substitutes who work full-time, floating from classroom to classroom when teachers are missing.
Permanent subs are typically paid a slightly higher daily rate -- around $5 more. In some cases, as in Salem and Lawrence, they even receive benefits.
Danvers, Amesbury and Triton among other districts that use permanent, in-house substitutes. Peabody and Beverly had them until recently but cut them for budgetary reasons.
Districts that use them say full-time subs fare better than off-the-street substitutes because they get to know the procedures, routines, teachers and students.
And students who know the substitutes are less likely to act up.
"We think that we lose less academically by having that system," said Levine, the Salem superintendent.
Anne Girard, a substitute teacher in the Triton system for seven years, said steady subs get to know the students, teachers and administrators and develop the confidence to do whatever job they are assigned.
She said confidence is key because students typically see classes taught by a substitute as a signal that "we could do whatever we wanted."
In a similar approach to improving the quality of substitute teaching, Gloucester schools created a teacher emeritus program. It allows retired teachers to return as subs, working up to 45 days a year and earning $125 a day, compared to the $60 that the district pays regular subs.
Other factors, such as the qualifications required for substitutes, also play a role in whether students learn. And interviews with school officials North of Boston show those standards vary greatly.
Some districts, like Peabody, require only a high school diploma. Most districts require an associate's or bachelor's degree.
Certified teachers are also preferable, but they aren't always available.
"It's a supply-and-demand issue," said Martes, of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents. "Obviously, you would go with minimum qualifications if the pool was very, very weak, if you couldn't get people, and then you'd really try to choose them according to highest qualifications."
Greater Lawrence Technical High Superintendent Frank S. Vacirca said there are times when he brings in subs with no degree.
"I respect them," he said, "but the outcome is just different."
In some cases, schools don't bring in any sub at all -- either because they're trying to save money or because they can't find one in time.
In those cases, full-time teachers have to give up their planning periods to fill in for absent colleagues or take on two classes at once. It saves money, but school leaders say it has a negative impact.
In Haverhill, Superintendent Arthur W. Tate Jr slashed money for substitutes by 40 percent before the 2001-02 school year and told building principals the district could only afford two substitutes per school.
Principals had to find a way to cover if there were more absences. Often that meant teachers using their planning period to cover for someone else.
"That put a strain on the system in a building because there wasn't a lot of time for teachers to prepare," Tate said. "It took away from curriculum development."
But with the district facing increasing costs for substitutes, it was either that or deeper cuts to educational programs.
Schools in 17 North of Boston districts surveyed by the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. newspapers spent more than $8 million on fill-in teachers during the 2001-02 school year, or an average of $104.88 per student.
Regardless of who is covering a class, the absent teacher's preparation for that day has an impact.
"A substitute can be made or broken by very good planning by the teacher," said Martes. "I've had teachers where they tell you every five minutes, 'This is what you should be doing.' That's when it really works. When the plans aren't good, that's when it's problematic."
Teachers in most districts are required to prepare lesson plans for subs to follow.
In Gloucester, teachers are required to have three days of lesson plans on file in the principal's offices.
But they are usually generic lesson plans, and Gloucester Superintendent Thomas Consolati acknowledged, "it's never as good as the teacher."
Haverhill's Tate agreed. "Even with the greatest lesson plans, and no matter how well-prepared a sub is, no one can carry out lessons like a full-time teacher."
Koocher, of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said the effectiveness of a substitute also varies with the age of students and the subject they are teaching.
"At the higher levels, my experience has been that it's less classroom instruction and more keeping the peace," Koocher said. "In elementary schools, you'll see some classroom instruction, but generally they just fill in for a day or two. For specialty subjects, you just don't have qualified music and art teachers. It's much easier to find a substitute for reading."
Peabody Superintendent James Gaylord said substitutes at higher grade levels may not be able to teach a physics class, for example, unless they have specific training in that field.
"If it's elementary, it can be carried on a little bit more easily," he said. "I would hate to sub if I would be doing calculus.
Staff writers David Joyner, Shawn Boburg, Gail McCarthy and Dan Hackett contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Tuesday, June 17, 2003
'No one pays attention'
By Marc Fortier, Staff Writer
Peabody Superintendent James Gaylord thinks the quality of education remains "fairly high" when a teacher is out sick and a substitute fills in.
He might want to check with his students, because their descriptions of what really goes on paint a very different picture.
"Kids just fool around a lot," said Ahlam Chehabi, 14, a freshman at Peabody High. "No one pays attention. It seems like the substitute teachers are scared."
"If there's a sub, nothing's going to be done at all," said Nick Brecken, 17, a Peabody High junior.
"You just chill out," added Jay Sweeney, 17, also a junior. "Lots of sleeping goes on."
The accounts in Peabody mirror those in every North of Boston school system.
While most administrators admit a day with a substitute is a setback for student learning, many say the effect is minimized by rules requiring absent teachers to leave lesson plans and principals who keep a list of proven substitutes.
Most parents also assume substitutes are picking up where regular teachers leave off.
But kids tell a different story.
Sweeney said he had a sub last month, and it was a breeze. "He came in and said, 'I don't have an assignment for you. Do what you want.' It's basically like a baby sitter."
Triton Regional High School freshman Chris Girard said it isn't unusual for a class to misbehave for three-quarters of a period, ignoring the substitute teacher's warnings.
Then near the end of the class, someone will stand up and ask, "If we're good for the rest of the class, will you leave a good note for our teacher?"
Surprisingly, he said, most subs are willing to make that deal.
He estimates that when regular teachers are absent, only about 70 percent of the work gets done.
In terms of educational quality, a day with a sub, even at its best, is like quiet study time, students said.
"We don't do anything," said Matt Lampert, 18, a Beverly High junior. "Some subs are hard, but most of them just do whatever. It's like a study period. Kids will ask to go to the bathroom and leave for the whole class."
"It's pretty simple," said Dave D'Amato, 18, a Beverly High senior. "It's definitely not the regular atmosphere. You're learning on your own."
Not surprisingly, most parents have a different take on what goes on when a substitute fills in for a sick teacher.
But they only hear what their children are willing to tell them.
"Honestly, I haven't seen much drop off," said Ann Ambeliotis of Peabody, who has two children at the Center School. "I think the consistency of their day is different, but I don't believe that I've heard either of them say, 'Oh, what a day, we didn't do anything.' They do the same work, it's just the consistency isn't there."
Steve Galante of Beverly has four children in the public school system -- one in preschool, two in elementary school, and one in middle school. And he thinks the substitutes in Beverly do a fine job.
"I've always felt there have been subs in place so that my kids haven't missed a beat," he said. "I have kids in regular ed and special ed, and even in special ed, I've always felt like my kids have gotten great replacements."
Galante did say, however, that he has heard from some parents who have not had such glowing reviews.
Fuller Elementary School parent Christie Orlando of Gloucester said the issue of substitute teachers comes to the fore most when a teacher goes on maternity leave.
Orlando faced the issue when her child's teacher left in February after giving birth. But she was pleased with the transition because the substitute taking over the class was able to work with the classroom teacher before the teacher left. She said the teacher's aide also provided continuity.
Lawrence schools pay millions of dollars each year to ensure that substitutes aren't coming into class cold.
They hire so-called building-based educators, or substitutes who report to the same building every day, filling in for teachers they know and students they are likely familiar with. The extra costs comes mostly from providing benefits to those substitutes. But school officials say it's worth it.
While students in Michael Carpenito's World History at Lawrence High were orderly and responsive to the permanent substitute when a reporter visited their classroom recently, their views on teacher fill-ins are in line with those of students at schools without permanent subs.
"A lot of the students think, because there's a substitute, they can get away with whatever they want, that the substitute will be afraid to put their foot down and they can be obnoxious," said student Sarah DiMambro, 16. "Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's true -- unless you get a good substitute, one that's more of a friend."
The class broke out in laughter occasionally but quieted down when Carl W. Anderson, one of seven building-based educators at Lawrence High, asked them to lower their voices.
Still, the scene offered a few clues that this was not a typical class.
Though it was a World History class, the quiz was about word usage and characterization in a passage from "Lassie Come Home."
Anderson did not lecture, but relied on the written assignment to occupy the class.
"If you finish up and have a book to read or homework or preparation for another test, that would be OK," he told the class.
The students were respectful toward him -- but candid about their behavior toward substitutes in general.
"Most kids pay attention to the real teacher, not the substitute," says Marlenny Villa, 15. "When a substitute is too nice, we take advantage of him."
Staff writers Kathie Neff Ragsdale, Gail McCarthy and Dan Hackett contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Days off costing state $1B
By Shawn Boburg, Staff Writer
While the state's fiscal crisis threatens to increase class sizes and shrink educational programs, North of Boston schools are spending more than ever in one category: the cost of covering for absent teachers,
From fiscal years 2000 to 2002, the combined amount local districts spent for substitutes surged by 17 percent, outstripping inflation as it ate up a larger percentage of school budgets and crowded out other educational needs.
The cost increase is due in large part to a substitute shortage that led schools to offer higher, more competitive pay rates, school leaders say.
Also contributing is a teacher hiring binge over the last decade that has forced schools to pay more money for substitutes simply because there are more teachers to call in sick.
A few school systems have attempted to rein in spending, slashing the amount of money they set aside for substitutes, finding creative, if sometimes undesirable ways to fill empty teacher desks and appealing to teachers to take fewer days off.
But most have done little or nothing to curb teacher absenteeism in order to save money, even as they ask students to pay fees for after-school activities and do without new textbooks.
An analysis by Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. newspapers found teachers in 17 North of Boston districts missed an average of 11.4 school days during the 2001-02 school year. Most of those days -- 7.6 on average -- were sick days. And almost half the region's teachers took at least one sick day on the day before or after a holiday.
The 17 districts together spent more than $8 million on substitute teachers that year -- an average of just under $104 per pupil.
The Department of Education does not track spending on substitutes teachers statewide. But if other Massachusetts districts are spending at the same rate as those North of Boston, the cost of replacements for absent teachers represents an expense of almost $1 billion a year.
The cost of substitute teachers rose sharply in the late 1990s, as a tight job market forced schools as well as other employers to offer better pay.
"Substitutes are hard to get so you're paying more," said Karen S. Sarkesian, superintendent of Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School in Haverhill.
Citing a "severe shortage of substitutes throughout Massachusetts," Haverhill Superintendent Dr. Arthur D. Tate in December of 2000 increased the daily pay of qualified substitutes by 45 percent, from $75 to $110 a day.
"I think there was just good employment at the time, especially here in Massachusetts. People had their choices so we increased our pay," Tate said.
That increase in substitute pay may be the principal reason seven local districts saw increases of over 25 percent in annual substitute teacher spending between fiscal years 2000 and 2002. Beverly saw spending on subs soar by 68 percent in that period.
Inflation for the same period was about 7.5 percent.
In Lawrence, substitute teacher spending more than doubled over five years -- from $1.6 million in the 1997-98 school year to $3.4 million in 2001-02.
Last year, spending on subs consumed 3.6 percent of the entire budget -- or about $260 per student, by far the most in the region.
Lawrence has one of the highest teacher absentee rates in the region -- with 9.1 sick days per teacher in 2001-2002.
But the real reason for the city's dramatic cost increase is that two years ago it decided to hire full-time, permanent substitutes, with health benefits, who come to the same school every day and fill in for whoever is absent.
The so-called building-based educators develop relationships with students and with the teachers they are filling in for, providing some continuity in instruction in one of the most challenged school districts in the state.
Lawrence has the area's most extensive permanent substitute program, with about one for every 300 students.
"It may cost more, but for children in the long run it's better," said Assistant Superintendent Mary Lou Bergeron.
The decision to double spending on substitute teaching may have been easier for Lawrence than it would have been for other communities. Local taxpayers pay only about 1 percent of the system's annual budget of $110 million. State taxpayers pay most of the rest under a state school aid formula that favors poor urban districts.
In Beverly, 14 permanent subs were laid off midway through this year to save money.
But, with a $3 billion state budget deficit looming, even Lawrence is forced to tighten its belt. Facing state aid cuts, it is eliminating 133 school positions, mostly teacher aides.
Another factor fueling the increase in substitute costs is the effort over the last decade to lower class sizes by hiring more teachers, said John Crafton, Methuen's assistant superintendent of finance and operations.
State money pumped into local schools by the Education Reform Act of 1993 helped pay for the additional teachers.
From 1993 to last year, the number of full-time teachers in the state increased 33 percent, from 57,000 to 76,000, according to state Department of Education records. Student enrollment for the same period increased only 13 percent, to about 975,000.
Since most teachers North of Boston get 15 sick days per year, schools that hired more teachers are also paying for more sick days.
A few local districts have attempted to save money by reducing the amount budgeted for substitutes and asking regular teachers to pick up some of the slack.
In Haverhill, Tate cut the district's budget for substitutes by 40 percent before the 2001-02 school year -- after watching sub spending soar by a similar margin over the previous two years.
Faced with an anemic budget, the school chief told school principals the city could only afford to pay for enough subs to cover for an average teacher absentee rate of two days per year.
Any absences in excess of that would have to be covered by other teachers during their planning periods or by administrators.
As a result, Haverhill had one of the lowest absentee rates in the region during the 2001-02 school year: 6.6 sick days per teacher, compared to an average 7.6 days for 17 North of Boston school districts.
"We just cut back and people worked very hard to find other ways not to miss school," Tate said. "I don't necessarily think it was good for student achievement because in some cases we were doubling up classes for a certain portion of the day, and teachers who might normally be doing other duties, like planning, had to fill in."
Whittier is among other school districts attempting to rein in spending on substitutes.
Starting earlier this year, the regional vocational school began covering two absences "in house" -- using other teachers on their planning periods.
At a substitute rate of $90 a day, that strategy will save the high school about $32,000 a year, or about 85 percent of the average teacher's salary.
"The trade-off is the teachers could be working on other programs," said Sarkesian, Whittier's superintendent. "We're taking away a piece of that day, where they could meet with other teachers and talk about curriculum issues.
"But I think in rough times, people should look at things all over again. Everyone has to rethink their budget and how they do things and look at contracts too."
Marc Fortier, David Joyner, Gail McCarthy and Dan Hackett also contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Training puts strain on Newburyport
By Dan Hackett, Staff Writer
Teacher training may make for better classes and better schools. But at what point does pulling teachers off the job to hone their skills -- and leaving students in the hands of substitutes -- defeat the purpose?
Schools throughout Massachusetts face the conundrum, as they feel pressure from the state's decade-old Education Reform law to keep teachers trained.
But nowhere North of Boston is the question more pointed than in Newburyport, where teachers spent an average of 4.8 days away from class for training during the 2001-02 school year.
That is two full days more than any of the other 16 districts in the region whose attendance records were analyzed by the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co.
Teachers in neighboring Amesbury averaged just over one professional development day last year.
The high number of professional development days was the reason that Newburyport's 214 teachers were out of the classroom more than teachers in any North of Boston district -- an average of 14.5 days, almost three weeks of class time -- even though they used fewer sick days.
Research has shown substitute teaching in general cannot match having a regular teacher in a classroom, and Newburyport Superintendent Mary Murray said school officials acknowledge the "trade-off" when teachers are absent for training.
But that training is necessary, said Murray, because the school system has been chasing the "moving target" of new curriculum, the high-stakes MCAS competency test, teacher turnover and new teaching techniques.
In recent years, Newburyport has taken steps to reduce the amount of time that training takes teachers out of the classroom by negotiating a teachers contract that stakes out two days for training early in the school year.
But that time is "not adequate" to cover all the changes teachers are facing, said Murray, who taught for 20 years and spent seven years in charge of teacher training.
With teachers nationwide complaining that schools don't offer enough training, Murray said, Newburyport is trying to meet that obligation. The district spent nearly $209 per student on teacher training during the last school year, more than the $125 that the state requires and higher than the state average, about $140.
Murray called the district's record on teacher training a "commitment" that reflects dramatic changes in education and the community's expectations for quality schools.
"It's not something that could be done in 15-minute increments or done in just two days out of the year," she said.
The approach raises a question: Can a school system's commitment to training hurt students in the short run because they have less classroom time with their teachers?
By the time a public school student graduates from high school, he will have spent 187 days, or the equivalent of an entire school year, with substitute teachers, according to Utah State University, home of the Substitute Teaching Institute.
Parents seem to recognize the problem.
The grassroots group ACORN (Association of Community Organizations for Reform) recently surveyed more than 1,000 parents of Boston school children and found one of their major concerns is the amount of time substitutes lead classes.
"The situation with substitute teachers was one that came up pretty consistently," said ACORN's Owen Toney. "Parents would ask their kids, 'Where's your homework?" and they'd say, 'We don't have any homework. We had a substitute today.'"
The survey prompted Boston schools to launch an experimental substitute training course that could be expanded if the results are positive.
Kathy Christie, analyst for the Education Commission of the States, a research group in Colorado, called teacher absenteeism due to professional training "a huge issue" nationally.
But Christie points out that school leaders often find themselves having to deal with conflicting demands.
Observing "early release" school days or pulling teachers out of classrooms for training is "a tough sell with parents," she said. At the same time, parents, as well as federal officials charged with enforcing the "No Child Left Behind" act, are demanding well-trained teachers.
Other North of Boston districts face the dilemma, as well as Newburyport.
Amesbury now carefully tracks money it spends on substitute teachers who are filling in for sick teachers, versus substitutes who take over while teachers undergo training. The monitoring follows parents' complaints that teachers seemed to be spending an undue amount of time away from students.
In Newburyport, Murray said the district has "begun to scale back" the amount of time its teachers spend training during school hours. Also, she said, a broader look at the issue would show that the 2001-2002 school year marked a peak in classroom absences for training.
Teacher contracts also limit school officials' ability to manage the problem.
Extending the work year to accommodate training typically comes at a price that many school districts cannot afford to pay right now.
Newburyport negotiated two full days of teacher training by adding the days to teachers' work year, but that deal was made at the height of the local economy -- when the budgetary picture was completely different.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Wednesday, June 18, 2003
Teacher temp agencies turn a profit on sick days
By Dan Hackett, Staff Writer
Before Danvers hired a company to recruit and manage its substitute teachers, many classes went uncovered and students were frequently corralled in study halls because qualified replacements could not always be found to teach subjects like calculus or physics.
The number of uncovered classrooms has dropped since the district hired the substitute agency OPIS.
"We don't want to send kids to study halls," said Danvers Superintendent Betty Allen. "Now there are less uncovered classrooms, and some of the substitutes are certified, mostly in the area they're teaching."
Underlying the growing prevalence of such "teacher temp agencies" in the last six years is high teacher absenteeism -- a problem that forced 17 North of Boston school districts to find replacements for a combined 410 teachers on the average day last school year.
A substitute shortage in the late 1990s has also fueled the trend toward privatization of the job of finding fill-ins. So have growing pressures on administrators to comply with accountability mandates handed down by the state under the Education Reform law of 1993.
But critics question whether the staffing agencies are a wise use of taxpayer money -- especially amid the current financial crunch. And some districts that have opted not to use the private companies say that adding a middle-man may hurt oversight of sick day use, encouraging teacher absenteeism.
OPIS, a regional player, and Kelly Educational Staffing, a national agency, advertise their ability to do what schools alone can't -- or don't want to -- do.
Danvers, North Andover, and North Reading have contracts with OPIS, and several other local districts have either paid or considered paying the company to secure substitutes.
"It's a huge administrative burden," said Holly Binda, regional manager for Westford-based OPIS. "With teachers' professional development time on the rise ... and the requirement that students pass the MCAS, administrators need to concentrate on their job of educating students. And when they hire us, they don't have to race around trying to staff these classrooms in the morning."
Companies like OPIS and Kelly try to convince school administrators that hiring an agency to handle substitutes won't cost much more than doing it themselves. "If they clearly look at the big picture," Binda said, "they would see it's roughly the same cost to the district."
Part of that bigger picture is being assured a substitute will report to school for absent teachers in the morning -- meaning fewer students will bide their time in study hall, with little oversight and less instruction.
Kelly and OPIS boast "fill rates" for subs in the high 90s, compared to national averages from 65 to 85 percent. There are several reasons for the difference. Agencies can draw from a larger pool of subs. Kelly can also tap a pool of people who are looking for work in other fields, like science or engineering, but will try moonlighting as a substitute teacher.
But some say the money going to companies like OPIS would be better spent training substitutes, or increasing their pay.
"Instead of the school district increasing sub wages, it is willing to pay up to 30 or 40 percent fees to (the) temp agency," said Shirley Kirsten, president of the National Substitute Teachers Alliance, which asserts that better pay and training will boost both the quality and supply of substitute teachers.
OPIS charges districts $87 per substitute per day. The subs get $65 of that and the company $22.
Danvers pays OPIS about $300,000 a year.
Critics like the NSTA also argue that sub agencies capitalized on a national labor shortage in the late 1990s that put schools in a bind. There is evidence that the poor economy and layoffs have eased the crunch, shifting the advantage away from services like Kelly and OPIS.
In Amesbury, the list of available substitutes normally dwindles to about 30 names late in the school year. By late May this year, its list still stood around 100.
In Gloucester, the substitute coordinator fields up to 24 calls in the average day, but two or three usually don't get filled because subs aren't available. That would make Gloucester's fill rate just under 90 percent.
Like many other school districts, Salem was having trouble finding subs about five years ago, so the district hired OPIS. The relationship didn't last long.
"It was fairly expensive," said Salem Superintendent Herb Levine. The district went back to recruiting its own subs, and boosted substitute pay. "Now I think our fill rate is very high," Levine said. "I would guess it's around 90 percent."
Binda acknowledged the economy has made recruiting substitute teachers easier, and OPIS is looking to expand outside the New England market and sign up more private school customers.
But school administrators still relish the chance to be rid of the distractions surrounding recruiting, screening and managing substitutes, she said.
"Now the biggest challenge is the budget crunch," said Binda. "There are school districts that want the service and believe in the concept, but when the money's not there, there's not much you can do."
Another challenge is convincing some administrators that hiring the agency will not lead to higher teacher absenteeism.
There have been scattered reports from schools in the South that absenteeism jumps when teachers calling in sick are allowed to leave a message with an agency rather than having to call their boss at school.
School officials in Reading worried about that before hiring OPIS, so the agency tweaked its system, requiring all teachers to call both OPIS and their principal. Binda said Reading promptly scrapped that approach because it proved a distraction for principals. Now, two years later, Reading schools have not seen teacher absenteeism change, Binda said.
Some North of Boston school officials are reluctant to hire an agency like OPIS or Kelly because they believe principals and teachers would no longer be able to request familiar substitutes who are qualified.
"One reason principals prefer the current system is because they want to be able to hand-pick people," said Newburyport Superintendent Mary Murray.
Binda acknowledged that is "one of the most common objections." In response, companies like OPIS and Kelly allow schools to tailor the system. "We let them dictate what they want to happen," Binda said, adding that OPIS doesn't charge extra for alterations.
Faced with questions about the quality of the substitutes they send to schools, agencies like OPIS and Kelly also trumpet that they recruit and train better subs than school districts can.
Kelly claims its screening and training regimen makes its substitutes better prepared for the challenges of the real classroom, where students often see substitute teachers as a day off from real learning. For example, Kelly asks applicants how they would handle specific situations in the classroom.
"We want to see if they can think on their feet," said Faith Burke, who manages the Kelly Education Staffing office in North Andover.
"The schools are getting a higher caliber of substitute teachers, and they're teaching, they're not just sitting there, they're teaching," Burke said.
Staff writers Marc Fortier and Gail McCarthy contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Sick leave abuse seldom addressed by schools
By Marc Fortier, Staff Writer
North of Boston school administrators say they keep an eye on teacher absences, checking to see who takes sick days and looking for patterns of abuse.
Most school districts require teachers to submit a doctor's note after five days away from the classroom.
But few districts do much to police the system or hold teachers accountable for their absences.
Teachers typically are allowed to call automated voice mail systems when they are going to be out sick. Only a few top administrators said they regularly check how many sick days teachers take around weekends or holidays -- a sign of sick leave abuse.
And many teachers contracts have little to say on the subject.
A review of contracts in 17 North of Boston districts found only seven that explicitly define a sick day and what it may be used for.
Only eight describe in any detail what steps school administrators might take to pursue suspected abuse.
School officials cite isolated cases of confronting teachers who were suspected of abusing sick leave benefits. But attendance records reviewed by the Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. newspapers show symptoms of a more pervasive problem. The analysis found more than 150 North of Boston teachers who used a disproportionate amount of sick leave on Mondays, Fridays or next to school vacations during the 2001-02 school year.
Some teachers have freely admitted to tapping sick leave for "mental health" days or to pad vacations.
Administrators say that union contracts frequently keep them from dealing with suspicious absences more aggressively.
Peabody Superintendent James Gaylord said loose language governing sick days in Peabody's teacher contract limits his ability to police sick leave. For example, teachers are allowed to take sick leave for unavoidable absences like family illness. All that is required is that teachers fill out a form and send it to the superintendent, who then signs it.
Peabody teachers averaged 8.6 sick days last year, among the highest in the region. With long-term illnesses factored out, Peabody's 7.8 average is second only to that of Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical High School.
North Andover Superintendent William E. Allen cited similar difficulties in cracking down on teachers suspected of abusing sick leave.
Teachers in his district used an average of 7.7 sick days in 2001-02. "There's a contract," Allen said. "People are entitled to those days, so you have to be careful, or you'll end up with an unfair labor suit in your lap."
Administrators in some districts even said they rely heavily on teachers unions to help them police sick leave.
Andover Superintendent Claudia Bach said her district leaves it to the union to talk to any teachers who administrators suspect are abusing sick leave. Teachers in Andover used an average of 7.4 sick days, slightly less than the 7.6 average for the North of Boston region.
Gaylord said if he notices a problem, he works with the president of the teachers union to address it.
"He'll go and check and if there is a means to solve it, we solve it," Gaylord said. "I have a good working relationship with the union concerning anything that might be out of line."
Interviews with North of Boston school administrators show widely varying approaches to monitoring teacher sick time.
Some only check teacher attendance periodically. In many districts, the task is left to individual school principals.
At Greater Lawrence Technical School in Andover, for example, the principal watches for cases of suspected abuse. If the principal sees a pattern, administrators call in the teacher to discuss the matter.
Greater Lawrence Superintendent Frank S. Vacirca said the district also does an attendance analysis every year.
"But sometimes you can't see the forest through the trees," he said.
In Danvers, the assistant superintendent looks over attendance figures for teachers on a quarterly basis, but the daily chore of checking absences falls to the personnel director.
Haverhill Superintendent Arthur W. Tate Jr. said sick day use is monitored within each building, by each principal. "We have the right to ask for a doctor's note after a certain amount of time, but I get the impression that there's not much abuse going on here," Tate said. "Either people aren't abusing it, or principals aren't seeing it."
In Amesbury, Superintendent Stephen J. Gerber gets only a year-end absenteeism report, and he looks for patterns, such as teachers who tend to be absent on Mondays and Fridays.
Lawrence High Principal Thomas D. Sharkey said he does periodic checks on teacher absences at semester break, but monitoring is mostly left to administrators of the school's five academies.
"If I see problems, I try to have a conversation with the teacher," Sharkey said. "The second time, there might be a more formal meeting, and a union representative may join the teacher. The third phase is a follow-up letter."
Sharkey said he once sent a formal "notice of intent" to a teacher, though he also has had "lots of informal discussions" with teachers about their absences.
But Lawrence High School teacher Kimberly Ryder, who has taken 43 sick days during the past two years -- 33 of them around holidays or weekends -- said her bosses never approached her. Ryder makes $44,111 a year to teach an MCAS English prep class. "My principal has never called me down. Central office has never called me down," she said. "So apparently they don't think it's a problem."
A few districts take more aggressive steps to patrol teacher absences and pursue suspected cases of abuse -- and appear to be having some success.
Salem has a clerk who compiles a report every day that goes to the assistant superintendent in charge of personnel. The superintendent receives monthly and quarterly reports on teacher attendance.
Salem Superintendent Herb Levine said the district has an "absence control policy" that allows him to take action against a teacher in case of excessive absence or if those absences are taken around holidays, vacations and weekends, demonstrating a pattern of abuse.
Levine said he speaks with a teacher if he notices those types of patterns. If absences continue, he implements the absence control policy. "For people we believe to be sick day abusers, we can put someone on probation where over a 90-day period, if they're out even one day, we need a doctor's note," Levine said.
Levine said the policy, which predates his hiring in 1998, has proven effective in addressing the rare teacher who abuses sick leave. He estimated that he has had to place a teacher on probation once in the past two years.
Teachers on probation, he said, usually change their ways. "It really is intrusive," he said.
The approach seems to have produced results.
Salem's average of 7.2 sick days per teacher in the 2001-02 school year is in the middle of the pack compared to other North of Boston districts. When long-term illnesses are factored out, Salem is near the bottom of the list, with an average of 5.2 sick days per teacher.
In Methuen, Assistant Superintendent Arthur Nicholson said he frequently asks for doctor's notes or, in a case of suspected abuse, gently asks a teacher if something is wrong.
But even a doctor's note isn't always enough.
Methuen Superintendent C. Philip Littlefield said the district often doesn't accept notes.
"For example, a note will say that a doctor 'recommends so-and-so doesn't work because they are tired from the flu.' That doesn't work. That's different than being medically incapable of coming to work," Littlefield said.
Nicholson said he had one of those cases in mid-April. "I called and asked if the doctor could change the language."
Littlefield said he has reprimanded people for sick leave abuse and even docked pay.
"That's the taxpayers' money," he said. "But I've never had an individual abuse it a second time after being caught."
Gloucester Superintendent Thomas Consolati said his district's teacher contract allows him to question a teacher, as long as the teachers union is notified, if he sees patterns of absences. He has the ability to fire a teacher if sick leave abuse is determined.
Consolati said he has investigated two people this year. Both had excuses but did not visit doctors when they were absent.
"I couldn't determine beyond a shadow of a doubt they were sick, and no one will say they are lying," said Consolati. "So I've said any time they are absent, I will require a doctor's note saying they are sick and what was wrong. They are not happy about it."
Consolati said he has also challenged doctors to make sure teachers were actually sick.
The approach seems to be working, as Gloucester had the lowest average of sick days per teacher of any of the 17 districts surveyed.
Garry Murphy, superintendent of the Triton Regional School District, said administrators in his district several years ago noticed an unusually large number of teachers taking personal days around holidays and long weekends.
Now, he requires teachers to request personal days directly from him.
Murphy, who "periodically" brings a faculty attendance report to twice-monthly meetings with administrators, said he has docked teachers' pay for using sick days to extend long weekends or vacations. If it happens more than once, he said, it could be grounds for dismissal.
Beverly Superintendent William Lupini also described a get-tough policy, as administrators enforce the letter of the district's teachers contract.
Beverly teachers are required to submit a doctor's note -- not only when they are sick five or more days, but also if they are absent before or after a holiday or vacation. The teacher's contract also allows the superintendent to request a meeting with any teacher suspected of abusing other leave days.
"If we can establish a pattern -- and we have -- we've called people in and said, 'Listen. Every Monday and Friday doesn't cut it,'" Lupini said. The district can also send teachers who have been out to a city doctor for a second opinion.
"Two employees in the last three years felt harassed by us," Lupini said, because they had legitimate reasons for being out, like a death in the family.
Lupini said the district has been "diligent." He cited an example where a teacher who was retiring had knee surgery for an injury that had been bothering him for four years. The teacher planned to have surgery and take the last four months of the school year off.
"We said, 'No, you have to come back," Lupini said. The teacher returned for the final month.
Lupini said Beverly has had the sick leave policy for years but only began to enforce it after he took over six years ago. In the past, he said, administrators complained there was nothing they could do about sick leave abuse, instead of using the existing contract language to prevent it.
At first glance, Beverly's numbers don't seem to bear out Lupini's claim that sick leave abuse has been reduced on his watch. The district had the second-highest average sick day use per teacher out of 17 districts surveyed, at 9.4. When long-term illnesses are factored out, Beverly is in the middle of the pack, at 6.1.
Lupini said the district's substitute costs have stabilized. "That says to me that our usage is down," he said.
Last year, Beverly spent $583,000 on substitutes, or two-thirds more than it spent three years earlier.
Another way to increase accountability is to require teachers to call in and talk to a person -- instead of an answering machine -- when they are sick.
But in most districts, teachers only have to call and leave a message on a voice mail box, stating their name and the reason for their absence.
Before Lupini became superintendent in Beverly, an employee took calls from sick teachers at home before coming to work. The system was changed last year, and teachers now call in sick to a voice mail box with a recording of Lupini's voice.
But the district has also hired a substitute coordinator who works out of the superintendent's office. When the substitute coordinator comes in to work, she figures out who is sick and calls substitutes. She then lets principals know who will be out.
"Before, we didn't know for a week if we had a problem," Beverly School Personnel Director Joan Liporto said. "Now, we're on top of it constantly."
Greater Lawrence teachers also call and leave a message on a voice mail box when they are sick. There is also a separate number they can call to leave instructions for the substitute.
Sharkey, the Lawrence High principal, said teachers call a special telephone number when they're absent. The school is informed of the absence by the district's central computer system.
In Danvers, sick teachers call the school and leave a message on an answering machine before school opens. Then they call OPIS, the private company that handles the district's substitutes, and talk to an actual person. North Andover also uses OPIS. Teachers call OPIS directly, and OPIS tells the school who is out sick.
But Peabody has an actual person, instead of a voice mail system, who takes calls from sick teachers. Gaylord said that makes a huge difference.
In Gloucester, teachers usually call a principal, other supervisor or school secretary, who then calls the district's substitute coordinator.
Chris Martes, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said while each district takes its own approach to addressing sick leave abuse, it is usually best left to a principal or department head.
"It's often handled on an individual basis," he said. "If you see a pattern, you raise it."
Lou Perullo, a member of the Peabody School Committee and former Peabody superintendent, agreed.
"It's up to the building principal to maximize his staff attendance," he said.
When he was superintendent in Peabody, Perullo said he made school principals accountable for teacher absences by giving them a certain amount of money to use to hire substitutes each year. If there was any money left at the end of the year, principals were allowed to spend it elsewhere in the school.
"Say you've got 20 teachers and your goal is to have them absent no more than four days on average a year," Perullo said. "So I'd put $8,000 in the substitute line, and say to the principal, 'Work toward that goal, and anything left over you can keep for your school.'"
When there's money involved, Perullo said, principals tend to keep a closer eye on teacher absences.
The problem, he said, is that most school districts don't handle it that way, and instead try to address teacher absences centrally. "You can't do that," he said. "You've got to put your resources and incentives at the point of the transaction. You can only do so much centrally."
No matter what steps they take, Levine said, school districts will never completely eliminate sick leave abuse.
But they can try to minimize the problem.
"Out of 500 teachers, you will always find that individual exception," Levine said. "How you handle it is important. It sends a message to the staff. People who don't use sick leave want the problem corrected."
Staff writers Gail McCarthy, Dan Hackett and Shawn Boburg contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Thursday, June 19, 2003
Sick leave buybacks don't always pay off
By Marc Fortier, Staff Writer
School districts North of Boston are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to "buy back" sick days from teachers who don't use all the days their contract entitles them to take.
But there is little evidence the incentive is doing what it was intended to do: encourage teachers not to call in sick when they aren't really sick.
Twelve of 17 North of Boston districts offer some sort of sick day buyback. But an analysis of teacher attendance records by Eagle-Tribune Publishing Co. newspapers found little correlation between those incentive programs and teacher absenteeism rates.
Peabody, which spent $456,000 on sick day buyback at the end of the 2001-02 school year, averaged 8.6 sick days per teacher the same year -- among the highest in the region.
Gloucester, which offers no buyback, averaged 5.0 sick days per teacher, the lowest of any of the 17 districts.
School districts use a variety of incentives to keep down sick day use. The most common is sick day buyback upon retirement, which requires the district to pay retiring teachers for some percentage of the leftover sick days that teachers accrue from year to year.
"More districts are buying back those sick days at the end of the period," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "It's evolved into an economic benefit."
Salem schools, for example, buy back up to 80 sick days upon retirement -- 40 if teachers were hired after September 2000.
Unlike some districts, which only pay a percentage of a day's pay, Salem offers a full buyback. For a teacher making $50,000 at retirement, the incentive can represent a payday of more than $20,000.
The program cost the Salem school district $402,000 last year.
Other North of Boston districts that offer buyback at retirement include Peabody, Newburyport, Methuen, Rockport, Triton Regional, Pentucket Regional and Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School. Newburyport spent $119,000 on sick day buyback last year, Pentucket $67,000, and Rockport $2,950.
Some districts offer less lucrative annual incentives, buying back a small number of days each year from teachers whose sick day use doesn't exceed a set limit.
Danvers, for one, offers an annual buyback of $150 to $500 for teachers who use fewer than five sick days, which cost the district only $38,000 last year.
Other school districts -- including Amesbury, Lawrence and Greater Lawrence Technical High School -- offer both an annual sick day buyback and a retirement incentive.
In Amesbury, for example, teachers who use three sick days or less in a given year receive $100. In addition, retiring Amesbury teachers receive 75 percent of substitute pay for each unused sick day if they have used an average of less than four sick days per year. If they have averaged more than four sick says a year, teachers get only 50 percent of substitute pay.
Amesbury spent a total of $46,000 on sick day buyback last year.
Lawrence, which had one of the highest absenteeism rates North of Boston, paid teachers more than $1.2 million for unused sick time last year.
At the same time, it spent more than $3.4 million on substitute teachers, bringing its total sick time costs to almost $5 million.
Figures on the cost of buybacks were not available for some districts that offer them.
Some districts choose not to offer any sick leave buyback incentives. They include Andover, Beverly, Gloucester, Haverhill and North Andover.
Despite its popularity, the effectiveness of sick leave buyback is questionable.
Even though they offer both annual and retirement incentives, Lawrence and Greater Lawrence Regional Vocational Technical High School are among the highest in the region in terms of average sick days used per teacher. Haverhill, which offers no buyback, is near the bottom, along with Gloucester.
Administrators and teachers say that sick leave use would be far higher if it weren't for the incentives many districts offer.
"It's the difference between a headache and a HEADACHE," said Ed Sapienza, president of the Peabody Federation of Teachers. "You might come in if there is an incentive. You might stay out otherwise."
Even Beverly Superintendent William Lupini concedes the lack of any sick leave buyback in Beverly has probably led to some sick leave abuse, particularly among teachers in their retirement year.
"It would be a wonderful world if everyone worked a full year their last year," Lupini said. "Many do. But we have others who do take advantage of these days."
On the other hand, Lupini said, the district probably saves hundreds of thousands of dollars each year by not offering sick leave buyback.
Gloucester schools used to offer a sick day buyback incentive. But the teachers union swapped the program for a retirement savings plan called a 403(b), similar to a 401(k). The rationale was to have a program more equitable for all teachers, from newcomers to veterans.
Gloucester Superintendent Thomas Consolati had no problem doing away with sick leave buyback. He said it was becoming too costly anyway. "The sick day buyback was becoming a liability because it was likely the per diem cost would increase, and the great majority of teachers were accumulating sick time," he said.
Besides, Consolati said, he doesn't believe a buyback provision necessarily leads to better teacher attendance.
As proof, he said there has been no noticeable increase in sick leave use since the district eliminated the buyback clause from its teachers contract in 1999.
Staff writers Gail McCarthy and Dan Hackett contributed to this report.
The Eagle-Tribune Publishing Company
Thursday, June 19, 2003
'Insurance policy' approach to sick days has uncertain origin
By Gail McCarthy, Staff Writer
When Beverly Superintendent William Lupini arrived from Kutztown, Pa., six years ago, he was stunned to learn that teachers were guaranteed 15 sick days. Teachers in Pennsylvania received 10 days, which he thought was more than enough.
"I was shocked by the number," Lupini said. "I think it's a lot."
Teachers in 17 North of Boston districts are entitled to anywhere from 13 to 18 sick days, compared to the five or six days typically given private sector workers for a work year that is 10 to 12 weeks longer than teachers'.
"Fifteen days is like one every 2½ weeks," said Glenn Koocher, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees. "That's a lot of sick time."
For decades, teachers have received what many would call generous sick leave benefits. But the origins of that perk are unclear, according to experts, school officials and teachers themselves -- who say it is unlikely they would surrender the benefit.
"It's a security blanket for us," said Salem Teachers Union President Loretta O'Donnell. "Everything we've ever gotten, we've given something back. We're not going to give it back without some damn good reason. Somebody, somewhere gave something up for that."
Ample sick leave benefits aren't unique to teachers. Fifteen sick days is common in public employee contracts, according to Peter Ebb, a labor attorney with Ropes & Gray in Boston who works with suburban school districts west of the city.
The benefits aren't unique to teachers in this part of the country, either, though Massachusetts appears to be at the high end of the spectrum in granting sick leave.
Nationally, 63 percent of teachers get 10 to 14 days of sick leave, according to a 1998 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Another 8 percent get nine days or fewer.
Only 28 percent get 15 or more days. Teachers in 15 of 17 North of Boston districts are in that category.
Although the American Federation of Teachers does not track sick leave in each state, it provided some examples: New York City and Philadelphia teachers receive 10 sick days. Baltimore teachers receive 15 days. Teachers in Pittsburgh get 12.
Some North of Boston educators said teachers need more sick days than private sector workers because they are more likely to be ill and do not have regular maternity leave or long-term disability benefits.
"It's not a number you can predict or manage," said Pamela Turner, president of the Beverly Teachers Association. "You can go five years with a handful of sick days and hit a year with a severe infection and be debilitated for two weeks. Or they could have some chronic condition. There are so many profiles."
Private sector workers, Turner added, are not exposed to the "vagaries of public buildings," as teachers are.
Teachers have another perk in their contracts that is far less common in the private sector: They can accrue sick days from one year to the next.
Danvers Superintendent Betty Allen said that provision serves as a disability benefit in the absence of short-term or long-term disability benefits. "If a teacher comes down with a serious illness, they have a large number of sick days saved up," Allen said.
Massachusetts Teachers Association consultant Joseph Murphy also said that teachers' sick days represent an insurance policy, not an entitlement to those days off.
"It's not intended to be vacation days," he said. "They're intended to cover you when you're ill."
But the origin of that unofficial insurance policy is unclear.
Jeff Keefe, a professor in Rutgers University's Labor Studies and Employment Relations department, theorized that the high number of sick days in teacher contracts dates to the days when almost all teachers were women.
Keefe said female-dominated bargaining units, such as those for teachers, nurses, and flight attendants, historically have been more willing to trade wages for flexible schedules.
"I think it has been driven by gender, and we still see this occupational segregation," he said. "Women have primary responsibility for raising the children and when problems need to be addressed, it is most often the mother not the father taking care of family business."
David Gravel, who has chaired the Peabody School Committee's negotiations committee for eight years, said teachers' sick days may also reflect periods of tough economic times for cities and towns, when school districts may have given teachers additional sick leave in lieu of raises.
"It was seen as an economic benefit negotiated in the past," he said.
But Murphy, the Massachusetts Teachers Association consultant, said he received 15 sick days when he started teaching in 1963. That number predates collective bargaining, he said, and was later incorporated into contracts.
No matter sick leave's origins, teachers and administrators said it is unlikely -- though not out of the question -- that the number of sick days teachers receive will ever be reduced.
"Unless they wish to double it for us, I can't imagine it changing," said Barbara Arena, president of the Danvers Teachers Association.
Robert Duffy, a Massachusetts Teachers Association spokesman, said if 15 sick days is seen as "inappropriate," school districts should attempt to address it during contract talks.
"None of these things are written in stone," Duffy said. "It's a collaborative process."
Many superintendents don't see sick day abuse as enough of a problem to warrant a reduction in sick leave benefits. Only a handful of teachers are taking advantage of the system and treating sick days as extra vacation, they say.
"You don't take away a negotiated benefit that the extraordinarily large percentage of the population don't abuse," said Salem Superintendent Herb Levine. "You create a policy to address it instead."
Allen, the Danvers superintendent, said 15 days is "a pretty standard number" that covers the "occupational hazards" of being a teachers. "As long as it's not being abused, why would you reduce it?" she said.
It also seems unlikely that teacher contracts will change to offer disability insurance instead of generous sick leave.
Ebb, the Boston labor lawyer, said those benefits aren't often discussed because many contracts already provide for sick leave banks. "The idea is once you have exhausted sick leave, you can apply for and get continued benefits," he said, "and in effect, that's similar to what a disability benefit would get you."
Koocher, of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees, said school districts probably don't offer disability because "they're not required to."
Teachers probably don't ask for it in negotiations, he added, because they would rather that money go elsewhere. Many teachers probably also feel that they have long-term disability insurance through the state's pension system.
But Koocher said school districts could probably save money if they did offer long-term disability insurance, instead of allowing teachers to accrue sick days that many districts later buy back when those teachers retire.
"It could be a smarter idea for districts to buy long-term disability insurance," he said. "But, in fact, people haven't thought that creatively."
Staff writer Marc Fortier contributed to this report.
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