Teton County teachers have new options for their unused sick days.

In a unanimous vote Wednesday, Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees approved a new “employee engagement bonus” program that replaces the district’s sick day buyback policy. The goal of the new bonus — as was the one of the previous policy — is to incentivize educators to be in the classroom as much as possible.

“I just want to circle back and remind us why we are talking about this,” Trustee Janine Teske said at Thursday’s meeting. “The goal is to keep teachers in front of kids.”

Trustees wrapped up a monthslong planning process that began in the summer with a seemingly simple question: Was the sick day buyback program encouraging teachers to be in the classroom? School district administrators insinuated that some teachers were abusing the system, for instance using sick days to go skiing on powder days or take three-day weekends.

The buyback policy paid teachers for their unused sick days at the end of each school year. Teachers receive two personal and 10 sick days each year, and they could bank up to 50. After 50 the school district paid them half their daily rate for unused days.

The district’s hope was that educators would strive to bank days to reach 50 and then collect the bonus. By taking days off only when they or their kids were demonstrably sick, teachers could reach the buyback threshold faster.

“We don’t want anyone coming to school when they are unwell,” Information Coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said, “but we want people to recognize their absence has an impact.”

Teachers missing work hurts learning, school officials say, because it throws off students’ routine and forces substitutes to teach from lesson plans. The district has a roughly 80% substitute fill rate — meaning one of every five times teachers are sick administrators have to cover their classrooms or pull other educators from planning periods.

Trouble finding substitutes is somewhat attributable to the tight labor market in Teton County, but administrators have hired seven full-time subs in recent years in an attempt to alleviate that problem. But even full-time subs aren’t a panacea.

“We have outstanding subs,” Superintendent Gillian Chapman said, “however, we recognize the best experience for students is with their classroom teacher.”

The new system has three bonus options staff can choose (see sidebar). Having three options opens the bonus program to all staff, Chapman said, not just those who have been with the district a long time. Under the past structure staff would be eligible for the buyback in five years, if they never took a day off, and would receive no benefit until then.

The three-tiered program approved last week includes an option that allows any staff member to draw a bonus if they are part of the contingent that uses the fewest number of sick days, no matter the length of their tenure. Chapman hopes that by including every staff member, from bus drivers and janitors to educators, administrators can encourage better attendance.

At the beginning of the process, teachers were wary of losing the buyback, which is a popular benefit for those who have years of service in the district. They resisted the idea they were ditching work to go skiing, with Jackson Hole Middle School social studies teacher Michelle Rooks telling the board the idea was “an urban myth.”

But representatives from departments across the district, as well as representatives from the Teton County Education Association, sat in on Chapman’s Superintendent’s Advisory Council for more than 20 hours of meetings. That eased employee buy-in, Chapman said, and teachers got on board after the school board pushed the vote from its November meeting to December to allow them time to review the changes.

“We think the incentive options are awesome and fair,” said Jim Rooks, vice president of the Education Association. “Thank you for allowing us a month for our colleagues to digest that. There are no new radical changes, and we appreciate you hitting the brakes.”

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-7079 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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