Opinion

(Ed.'s note: The following letter was sent to Superintendent of Schools Dr. Geoffrey Gordon and is printed here at the writer's request.)

The question is, as our superintendent of schools, do you believe that excessive teacher absenteeism is a costly problem in Port Washington, or, do you believe that such a problem doesn't exist here? I believe that our school district does suffer from excessive teacher absenteeism. If you will read the balance of this letter, I will explain to you why I have come to this conclusion.

At the PWSD school board meeting held two evenings ago, when Mr. Hank Ratner, a community activist, again raised the issue that our teachers are granted 20 paid sick leave days a year, a contract provision that Mr. Ratner, I and others believe is overly generous, you angrily responded to him by saying that you know that our teachers do not take off 20 days a year for sickness, or something to that effect. Of course, no one thinks that every one of our 486.7 teachers takes off 20 days every school year for illness, but to say that none do, can't be an accurate statement. There may be some teachers who take no sick days off, while there may be others who reach the limit of 20 (or 50, if an "extended illness" is involved). Unfortunately, because of the very limited amount of time that Mr. Ratner had to address the board and you, he was never able to fully explain why he was focusing on this issue. The answer is that he, I and others in our community have been focusing on the wider issue of teacher absenteeism due to all causes, and the financial cost to our school district resulting from this absenteeism. Also unfortunately, when they reviewed your proposed budget for next year, not one on our school board members and not the board's own budget committee in particular, appears to have focused on the $800,000 line item of expense in the budget related to teacher absenteeism.

As far back as 1995, Mr. Steven Schlussel, in his monumental "Five Year Plan" to reduce the then school budget, identified the cost of excessive teacher absenteeism as a cost that should be reduced through stricter management controls. Since 1995, the problem has only grown and become more costly to our school district. More than a year ago, I submitted a FOIL request to Mrs. Callahan for a schedule summarizing the paid leave days granted to teachers for the school year ended June 30, 2007. That schedule indicated that on the average (the total number of paid leave days granted that year divided by the number of teachers on our staff), each of our teachers was paid for 15 leave days during that year.

If you will look at expense line item No. 2110-140-00 in your proposed budget for next year, you will see that the actual cost of substitute teachers for the school year ended June 30, 2008 was $1,186,986. If we assume that a substitute teacher is paid $110 per day (and that may be a high estimate), then $1,186,986 paid for 10,791 days of substitute teaching. If we then divide 10,791 days by the 486.7 teachers on our staff, we find that on the average, each of our teachers was paid for 22 leave days during the school year ended June 30, 2008. This appears to be an unusually high number of paid leave days for a year, probably caused by the expense figure being inflated for that year. I am sure that Mrs. Callahan can provide you with an explanation for the distorted numbers. I cannot. However, I am equally sure that after Mrs. Callahan's explanation, you will still find that on the average, each of our teachers was paid for at least 15 paid leave days for that school year.

If you will again look at expense line item No. 2110-140-00 in your proposed budget, you will see that you have provided $800,000 for the cost of substitute teachers for next year. That amount, divided by $110 per day, means that you expect to have to pay for 7,273 days of substitute teaching next year. I assume that our teaching staff for next year will be reduced by 15, to 471 teachers. That number of teachers, divided into 7,273 days, means that on the average, you expect each of our teachers to be paid for 15.44 paid leave days next year. So, it appears that year after year, on the average, our teachers are paid for 15 leave days each school year. Is this excessive? I think, yes.

Why? Because the school year that our teachers are required to work is only 184 days. If a teacher is absent from his or her classroom for 15 days (three-weeks) out of that 184 day year, then that teacher has only appeared in his or her classroom for 90 percent of the school year. Such a consistently high annual rate of employee absenteeism would never be tolerated in the private sector and in our case, in addition, we should not tolerate the high annual dollar cost to our school district, as well as the detrimental effect that excessive teacher absenteeism has on the quality of the education being delivered to our children.

How has this state of affairs come about? Under the provisions of their current contract, the following annual paid leave days are now granted to each of our teachers: 20 days for "sickness", 30 additional days for an "extended illness", 10 days for "family leave" (illness in the family), 5 days for "death in the (immediate) family" and 3 days for "personal leave." With that many paid leave days allowed each school year, it is easy to see how taking at least 15 of those days off each year becomes an entitlement.

If 15 paid leave days each year is excessive, what number would not be? I have not attempted to research that question, but Mrs. Callahan and her staff certainly can do that for you. I would guess that perhaps 8 or 10 paid leave days each year might be more the norm and that we would find either 8 or 10 days acceptable. If you were able to reduce the cost of substitute teachers by approximately one-third, from $800,000 down to $500,000, I think that would be a real accomplishment that you could rightly trumpet and that in addition, you would have found some of the funds badly needed by our district for school building repairs and computer equipment for our kids.

I am sure that our entire community would appreciate hearing your views on this teacher absenteeism matter and what, hopefully, your plans are to correct the situation.

Joel Katz


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