Teton County School District No. 1 is keeping a close eye on teacher absences.
Superintendent Gillian Chapman told school board trustees at a Nov. 27 special policy meeting that every time she signed approvals for teacher absences, “I’m thinking it’s a day lost.”
The challenge is balancing benefits for teachers with the unintended consequences of having a substitute teacher.
Absences range from a high of 661 in May of 2017 to a low of 226.5 in June of 2017, which isn’t a full month of classes.
Sick days consistently make up the majority of the absences among the district’s 247 teachers. Maternity leave is a second major reason why teachers aren’t at school. Last year 43 babies were born to staff of the district, and so far this year Chapman estimated 17 or 18.
“It’s wonderful that we have a lot of babies, and I want us to be the employer of choice,” Chapman said in November. “Happy teachers make for happy kids.”
The district offers 10 additional paid days of maternity or paternity leave on top of the federally mandated Family and Medical Leave Act, known as FMLA, which stipulates that employers offer their employees 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child.
FMLA takes into account teacher schedules and doesn’t count summer vacation days as part of those 12 weeks.
“The majority of our staff take the entire leave that’s available by federal law, and that’s partly because finding infant care is really challenging in Teton County and the cost is so high,” Chapman said. “It can actually be less expensive for our staff to take these days than it is to try to find someone for high-quality infant care.”
The board talked at least two times last year about whether maternity leave should be included in policy.
Trustee Keith Gingery likes that it would be “black and white” in policy and not likely to change every year, which he said could hurt family planning and seems “arbitrary and capricious.”
“We’re going to have people sitting there thinking, ‘Should I have a child or not? I need to wait to hear if the board is going to allow a child that year,’” Gingery told the board in November. “A policy creates consistency. I’m not sure employees will like continuing to work for us if we change on an annual basis what our benefits are.”
The board could change maternity leave in a policy, too, but it would take months between a 45-day comment period and several public readings.
Other trustees believe maternity leave belongs in the benefits package. That would provide more flexibility in the event of cuts in state funding.
“Given the funding issues in the state of Wyoming, I can’t really predict what we will be able to continue to offer,” Chapman said. “But we have one of the top benefits programs in the country, and we don’t want to reduce that.”
A consultant is examining the district’s benefits package. Roughly 87 percent of the budget goes to employee salaries and benefits.
Trustee Janine Teske called that “really high.”
Other reasons teachers might be absent include using personal days for things like wedding and family events, using sick days when they are ill and can’t come to school or if a spouse or family member is sick, professional development and supervision of student activities like coaching.
In those cases substitute teachers usually take over. That changes the classroom dynamics, Chapman said.
“We have outstanding substitutes, and for that we are certainly grateful,” Chapman said. “However, the research is pretty clear that the No. 1 impact on achievement is a high quality teacher who is consistently in front of students.”
Teachers who are with the same students day in and day out simply have more knowledge. That’s why there are incentives, like the ability to sell back accumulated sick leave, to keep teachers from taking days off.
“Our teachers know our students and families so well, they know the data, they know what skills students have, what area they are ready for and what interventions they need,” Chapman said. “There’s just no substitute for that.”
Four permanent substitutes were hired to float between Jackson and Colter elementary schools. The impact of a teacher absence is greater at the elementary school level.
“That’s one proactive step that we’ve taken,” Chapman said. “We’ve noticed an improvement in the number of unfilled positions. But does it reduce the number of absences? No.”