Citing uncertainty and teacher worry, the Teton County School District No. 1 Board of Trustees delayed a vote at its Aug. 14 meeting on the first reading of a proposed change to the district’s sick-day buyback policy.
At the end of each school year, the district pays teachers half their daily rate for any sick days accrued over 50 days. The program is meant to encourage teachers to use their sick days — they receive 12 a year — only when they or their children are truly sick, rather than for powder days or when they simply feel tired.
A dearth of substitute teachers in the district exacerbates the problems of teacher absences, and that has led the district to reconsider whether the policy is the best way to encourage educators to be in their classrooms. With an 80% fill rate when teachers are absent, the district has to scramble one out of every five times to fill classes with administrators or teachers who would be on planning periods.
“While we can have terrific substitute teachers, that still has an impact on the classroom,” Communications Coordinator Charlotte Reynolds said. “The thinking has been let’s try to incentivize staff to be at work unless they really cannot be there.”
The district has a similar program for retirees, in which it pays them a percentage for their banked days depending on their number of years of employment. Each program costs the district about $250,000 each year, though Reynolds said the motivation for the change was not financial but was strictly related to keeping teachers in their classrooms.
At their July workshop and August meeting, trustees discussed several options, such as Keith Gingery’s idea to increase the maximum number of banked days to 60, which would align with the number of missed days allowed under the Family and Medical Leave Act, as well as eliminating the buyback entirely.
Teachers Michelle Rooks and Jeff Stines, representing the Teton County Education Association, which advocates for teachers, attended the August meeting to tell the trustees that entering the school year with uncertainty about the buyback rule could hurt teacher morale. That’s particularly true of teachers who have been accruing sick days expecting they would reach the 50-day threshold and begin cashing out.
“Some teachers think veteran teachers are going to take in on the chin,” Stines told the board.
They offered to negotiate with the board to find a teacher attendance solution.
“This could be a cool way for TCEA and the district to collaborate,” Rooks told the board. “We can help to communicate this in a way that starts the school year off more positively.”
In pumping the brakes, the board opted to form a stakeholder group of teachers, the Education Association and administrators to discuss teacher attendance and whether changing the buyback policy could produce the desired effect. Trustees said they wanted to know what other Wyoming districts do, both related to the number of sick days teachers receive and whether they are compensated for unused ones.
In districts around the state teachers generally receive a similar number of days. School districts in Park, Johnson, Laramie and Fremont counties give their teachers 12 days a year, Carbon County School District No. 1 gives 75 to 80 hours of paid time off and Fremont County School District No. 25 in Riverton gives 15 days. All except Laramie County School District No. 1, which has no limit on accrual, have some form of buyback program, though the terms are different.
Closer to home, St. John’s Medical Center also has a paid time off buyback program, CFO John Kren said, that pays out at 100%, and the amount an employee can cash in on is based on tenure. The hospital doesn’t have employee attendance goals with its program and instead just believes the employee should be able to cash out in some way.
“When someone earns time off, it’s theirs,” Kren said. “It does no one any good to carry 2,000 hours over.”
While they may encourage employees to show up more often, buyback policies like St. John’s or the school district’s can have an unintended consequence. Offering a financial incentive can influence them to avoid taking the time away from work they need.
“You have people in the building who need a day a month to de-stress, they take their days when they’re not sick,” Trustee Annie Band said during the July board workshop. “But on the other hand there are a lot of people who look at the buyout and ask, ‘Well am I $200 sick today?’”
In attempting to address a complex problem the straightforward buyback policy leaves teachers and administrators with questions, but the board felt that starting a stakeholder process, which it will hire an outside facilitator to manage, should create investment in whatever solution is chosen.
“There are problems with the system,” Band said at the August meeting, “but we should give the stakeholders ownership of the change.”