School board members and teachers discussed various ways to make a district sick-day buyback program work better, but the discussion quickly led to broader issues about policy and compensation.
At its September meeting, the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved on first reading a change that would increase the number of sick days teachers need to bank before they can make use of the popular buyback program. The policy pays teachers half their daily rate for any sick leave accrued and unused above 50 days.
The change would increase the number to 60, aligning it with the 12 weeks mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act. The policy changes are up for a second reading at the board’s Nov. 13 meeting. If approved, they will become district policy.
The program’s intent is to incentivize teachers to be in the classroom and not use sick days, if possible. But with 3,500 sick days used in the 2018-19 school year, district administrators say the buyback has not worked.
Teachers fear changes to the program will disproportionately affect veteran educators who have banked sick days for years.
“By eliminating this buyback the board is effectively choosing to punish those employees who have shown up day in and day out,” teacher Jeff Stines wrote in a letter to the board, “because of allegations that some employees use their sick days inappropriately.”
Stines is a representative of the Teton County Education Association, which advocates for area teachers. He has been in discussions with the superintendent’s advisory committee about the buyback and the desire to have teachers in their classrooms more.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Superintendent Gillian Chapman presented the board with three options the advisory council devised. The first was the bump to 60 days with no other change to the buyback program.
Though not all trustees voiced opinions on the individual options, Trustee Janine Teske said the simple increase wouldn’t have the desired effect. Wholesale change is needed to better incentivize teachers to be in the classroom, she said, and that plan doesn’t go far enough.
“Option 1 is a nonstarter for me,” she said. “That’s not the right answer.”
The second option included a four-day student week. The bulk of absences are on Fridays, Chapman said, so giving teachers a planning and training day at the end of the week would result in “anticipated improvements in employee and student attendance Monday through Thursday.”
An early release on Fridays was also mulled, as was giving teachers one Friday off per month under the four-day student week.
Unlike the bump to 60 days, the four-day student week would require lots of research, some sort of Friday programming for students and other considerations.
“We could try it out and see how it works,” Chapman told the board, “but in talking with other districts, they’ve said it’s hard to go back to a five-day week if you implement it because everyone likes it so much.”
The third option offered teachers a spate of buybacks. One proposal allowed teachers to use accrued days to pay for wellness programs like yoga or a gym membership. In another, teachers could bank unlimited days to be paid out at retirement instead of yearly.
Chapman said the advisory council had already spent 12 hours discussing the program and, more broadly, how to keep teachers in their classrooms. It has another meeting planned for Oct. 23 before trustees’ second reading.
Beyond the intricacies of the buyback program, some trustees took issue with having teacher benefits codified in district policy in the first place.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to have things that are in the purview of the compensation plan in policy,” Trustee Annie Band said.
She said that having compensation and benefits in policy meant that the board couldn’t be nimble in making changes.
Policy changes require two readings with at least 45 days between them to allow for public comment.
Needing to go through such a process makes it difficult for the board to make changes in a “timely fashion,” she said.
“We are one of the few districts that has compensation stuff in policy,” Teske said.
Trustee Alan Brumstead, a former teacher, voiced the concerns educators might have if compensation and benefits were removed from district policies. He said concretizing compensation specifics in policy gives teachers a sense of trust that their benefits won’t change dramatically without transparency.
“Part of it comes down to a feeling of security for staff,” he said.