Arkansas' public school systems pay out millions of dollars per year for substitutes and temporary employees who fill the voids when positions are vacant or educators are absent.
Arkansas has 265 public school systems, including open-enrollment charter school systems, and 15 educational service cooperatives.
School districts spent more than $102.7 million in the 2017-18 school year to fill in for teachers, maintenance staff and food service workers who were away from jobs largely because of personal and family illness, personal business or job-related training.
The cost amounts to 2.4 percent of the $4.34 billion spent by school districts in 2017-18, not including debt service and capital expenses such as land purchases. The bulk of the $102.7 million was for substitute teachers and for temporary teachers who fill otherwise vacant positions. That was up from $99 million the year before, according to Arkansas Department of Education data.
Substitute and temporary employee expenditures in individual districts topped out last school year at $7,272,300 in Springdale, according to the Education Department data compiled at the request of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. It was $4,373,957 in Little Rock and $4,391,983 in Pulaski County Special.
Two of the state's largest charter school systems, the 2,158-student LISA Academy and the 1,968-student eSTEM Public Charter Schools, spent $346,320 and $211,105, respectively.
Large school districts in Arkansas spent well over $1 million on substitutes during recent school years. Search below to find any school district in Arkansas. Note: Substitute costs may include subsitute staff for food service or maintenance, as not every school district separated those numbers. Enrollment figures do not include pre-kindergarten students.
Data obtained from the Arkansas Department of Education. A small number of school systems are not in the state's database.
Educator absenteeism is not uniformly tracked among the state's districts, is haphazardly tracked within some districts and is largely unreported -- despite being the basis for tens of millions of dollars in yearly expenditures, an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette analysis has found.
Ivy Pfeffer, deputy commissioner of the Arkansas Department of Education, said in an interview that educator absenteeism is not only a financial issue but also an academic one.
"If you don't maximize every day you have with those kids, they are missing out on learning opportunities," Pfeffer said.
Teacher absenteeism is a growing concern nationwide.
Rhode Island, which had one of the nation's highest chronic teacher absence rates at 41 percent in 2015-16, has gone so far as to make teacher attendance a measure of school quality in its federally required Every Student Succeeds Act accountability plan. Arkansas and several other states include student absences in their plans -- but have stopped short of including teacher attendance as a measure of quality.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights defines chronic absenteeism as educators using more than 10 days per year of sick, personal, military and jury duty leave. Arkansas law provides a minimum of 10 days of annual sick leave to educators. Local districts typically add to that at least two "personal days."
Not all absences are taken at the initiative of the employees.
Absences for personal and family illness and for personal business in Arkansas' schools are exacerbated by employer-required teacher training programs that take teachers away from the classrooms. Arkansas law requires at least 36 hours of professional training per year for teachers to maintain their state teaching licenses. That's down from the previous 60 hours per year.
Regardless of the reason for the absences, education leaders and teachers at the local, state and national levels generally agree that excessive leave-taking is detrimental to student learning.
"Educators want to be in the classroom," said Cathy Koehler, president of the Arkansas Education Association union of teachers and support staff. "They have the relationships with their students. They know [that] the direct impact on students' succeeding or not is based on their being in the classroom."
But, for a largely female teacher workforce, multiple factors can affect work attendance, including family demands, Koehler said. That's on top of personal illnesses -- some of which stems from exposure to ill children in the classroom; classroom record-keeping requirements; and in-service or training programs. Further, school administrators often ask teachers to take full days off, when only half days or less are needed, to make it easier to hire substitutes.
Accurate and consistently reported information on who is absent from work in Arkansas' kindergarten-through-12th-grade school districts, why they are absent and how often they are absent, is hard to come by, state and school district data show.
The federal Office of Civil Rights measures teacher absences at schools every two years, and now the state of Arkansas -- after questions were raised by this newspaper -- is in the early stages of collecting and reporting such data annually.
The federal office reported that 28 percent of teachers nationally were chronically absent in 2015-16, the latest year for which information has been published.
The percentage of Arkansas teachers chronically absent -- missing more than 10 days -- in that federal report was 34.1 percent, above the national average in 2015-16, which put the state at 45th in the nation.
But the federal report on chronic absenteeism in the nation's schools is regularly criticized by independent researchers as having inaccuracies. The Arkansas numbers alone, which were compiled and submitted by the individual districts to the federal office, are fraught with problems, a newspaper analysis shows.
The state numbers, besides being more than 2 years old, sometimes erroneously included teacher absences resulting from professional development -- which aren't supposed to be included in the federal report.
There were also cases during the past several years in which Arkansas districts such as Fayetteville and Clarksville -- sizable districts with many employees -- reported no chronically absent teachers or, at the other extreme, 99 percent chronically absent teachers.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette issued requests over the past year to about a dozen Arkansas school districts and two charter school districts for up-to-date numbers on teacher absences. Those requests netted either no results or information so varied among school systems that it was not comparable.
Arkansas Department of Education leaders said they will begin asking school districts to submit their data on teacher absences on a school-by-school basis and in a manner that allows districts and schools to be compared with one another.
Greg Rogers, the state agency's assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, anticipates the agency asking districts to plug the information on absences per employee by work location into a "cycle report" during the summer or late in the school year.
Districts submit online cycle reports -- nine per year -- to the agency, on topics such as student enrollment, compliance with accreditation standards and special education services.
As it stands, school districts may or may not record absences caused by professional development. The districts often create and use their own codes to record specific training programs.
"Those are some of the things we have to work with them on -- what we are expecting them to report to us in the cycle data -- so we can get some consistency in looking at the data throughout all the districts," Rogers said.
District leaders need to be having conversations now with their employees about their attendance and absences, and telling them about the coming reports, Pfeffer said.
"We as a profession need to take responsibility for adult actions and how they impact student outcomes," said Pfeffer, a former Pocahontas High School principal.
Studies show that teachers are the most influential in-school factor in regard to student academic success, she said.
"Every day missed is a missed opportunity for kids."
Diane Zook of Melbourne, a former teacher and now a member of the Arkansas Board of Education, has pushed for months "to shine the light" on school employee absences and the effect of those absences on student achievement -- particularly on the students "who are disadvantaged by society, maybe by race and maybe by a handicap.
"And now he or she is disadvantaged because a teacher is chronically absent," Zook said, noting that if a student misses eight days and a teacher misses 12 -- the number of sick and personal days allotted annually to Arkansas teachers -- the student has missed 20 days of instruction.
Zook said it's not her intent to criticize teachers -- many of whom rarely miss work. And absences for illnesses are expected.
"But there are things we can control, " Zook said.
She called for a sharp reduction in conducting teacher training programs during regular school days.
"We want to give teachers the help they need but not at the expense of students. I want as many teachers trained as possible, but I want it done in the summer or during school holidays," she said.
WHAT STUDIES SHOW
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reviewed studies, and spoke with teachers and local, state and national education leaders about the issues teacher absences present in schools and what steps educators can take to reduce absences.
Across the nation, experts say, teacher absenteeism is a problem, but the resolutions vary.
At the National Council on Teacher Quality, which studied teacher absenteeism nationwide for the 2012-13 school year, ascertaining why one district had less teacher absenteeism than another was difficult.
"We just couldn't find anything that was a formal policy that was, 'Here's what works,'" said Kate Walsh, the council's president.
For instance, Hartford, Conn., Public Schools provides 20 sick days and five personal days to teachers. Despite that amount of leave, the district had an average rate of 14 percent of teachers who missed 18 or more days. It also had 22 percent of teachers who missed no more than three days, according to the study.
In contrast, the Columbus City School District in Ohio provides 15 sick days and two personal days. It had 32 percent of teachers who missed 18 or more days, giving the district one of the highest rates in the study in the category of 18 or more days. Three percent of Columbus teachers were absent three or fewer days.
The national council's 2014 report -- called "Roll Call: The importance of teacher attendance" -- is based on data requested on teacher absences from 51 school districts in the nation's largest cities, none of which are in Arkansas.
The "Roll Call" report, using data from 40 of the 51 queried systems, found no correlation between teacher absenteeism and high-poverty or low-poverty schools.
"We were really surprised by that," Walsh said.
A different study done on one unidentified urban school district found a correlation between fourth-grade teacher attendance and test scores.
That 2008 study, published in the academic journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis by three Harvard researchers, factored in dates of teacher absences in specific classrooms along with the dates of standardized tests.
In addition to finding a correlation between fourth-grade teacher attendance and student test scores, the journal study found that teacher absences were more common on Fridays and Mondays, and that teacher absences and the weather are correlated.
The study also noted that at the time the district heavily trained fourth-grade teachers to teach the new math curriculum, but substitutes did not get that instruction.
Education leaders said school environments -- physical and organizational -- contribute to teacher absences.
Koehler, the Arkansas Education Association president, said schools are often unhealthy places.
"There's mold. There's water leaking," she said.
And the atmosphere of the school and amount of support from administrators can be discouraging to teachers, Koehler said.
"The schools with the highest chronic absenteeism rates have a poor school culture where teachers do not feel supported, where teachers do not feel valued, where teachers are not allowed to work collegially to do the things they know they need to do to be successful," she said.
Ashley Washam, a 21-year teacher in the Pulaski County Special School District, said children enter school with more disciplinary issues than they did when she first began teaching, and with more problems at home. She said addressing those children's needs adds to her responsibilities.
"We have to wear so many more hats now than I did when I started," Washam said in response to a Democrat-Gazette online query to readers asking their views on teacher attendance and absences.
A large majority of teachers are women, who often take on bigger shares of care-giving in their families. So when children or elderly parents are sick, women take off from work to help more often than men do.
A 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics study shows a gap in absenteeism between men and women across the labor force, with women absent 1.7 times more often than men.
Also, how a school handles hiring substitutes may contribute to teachers being gone longer than they originally planned, Arkansas and national education observers said. Compared with other jobs in which an employee can arrive a little late, many teachers cannot do that and must take half or a whole day off.
Some administrators prefer to call substitutes in for whole days because it's easier to get them, Koehler said. So if a teacher needs to schedule a doctor's appointment that may last only an hour, often administrators ask them to take the whole day off.
James Gilson, a Little Rock Central High School math teacher, called most substitutes at the high school level "warm bodies" because many can't teach the content that he teaches. He said he'd like to be able to substitute for fellow math teachers when they are gone, using his planning period, and vice versa.
Washam offered a different perspective. "I've seen my son struggle because [teachers are] having to sub for other teachers and don't get planning time," she said.
Gilson, 56, teaches algebra and Advanced Placement calculus. He tries to quiz students every day because each math lesson builds on the previous one, and he wants to make sure students have learned, he said. That, along with providing before-school math help and creating his own material that he thinks is more effective instruction than the district's textbooks, means Gilson has a lot of work to do when he goes home each night.
He cautioned against assuming that large numbers of educators take unfair or dishonest advantage of sick leave policies.
He estimated that he works about 60 hours a week during the school year and probably takes about eight days off each year. He said he and other teachers miss school in part because of the hectic nature of the job.
Before speaking with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Gilson said he asked 10 teachers if they'd ever called in sick so they could catch up on grading. Nine said they had.
Gilson previously worked at the U.S. Small Business Administration and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
"I work much harder now," he said about teaching.
"And I did good work at those organizations," he said. "I'm not a slacker."
State, district and school officials, education experts and teacher advocates are searching for ways to promote employee attendance, reduce teacher absences and better track in and among districts.
"I don't have a magic bullet," said Paul Brewer, district human resources chief executive officer for the Pulaski County Special School District. "I wish I did. I would have used it a long time ago."
The Arkansas Department of Education earlier this calendar year announced plans to submit most of the required school district data for the Office of Civil Rights Data Collection -- relieving school districts of the responsibility. That will help make the data consistent, said Gina Windle, chief of staff at the Arkansas Education Department.
"In the past, people would guestimate just to get [the reporting task] off their plate -- because there was no accountability built around it," Windle said.
Additionally, the state agency is steering employee in-service time away from teacher-student contact days, Pfeffer said. The state agency is hosting a 3½-day summer conference in June in Hot Springs to provide some of the state training that has been done in a more piecemeal fashion for different categories of school employees throughout the school year.
The summer plan is the result of conversations with districts on scheduling, Pfeffer said, but she noted that school districts are in charge of their own school year calendars, so training and scheduling are not solely the responsibility of the state agency.
Across the state and nation, there's a mix of strategies to address employee attendance: financial bonuses, carry-over or even additional personal leave days, criteria for promotions, job evaluation criteria, peer pressure and/or required doctor's notes.
The Pulaski County Special district's policies, for example, provide teachers who have accumulated more than 125 days of sick leave to be paid at school year's end for any unused sick leave above 125 days. They receive pay equal to what is paid per day to a substitute teacher who holds a state teacher license. Similarly, the district's teachers can receive pay for their unused sick and personal leave days upon retirement.
Better data collection and reporting on teacher absences is often where districts can start in their efforts to reduce teacher absences.
In the West Memphis School District, Business Manager Jim Robb said making employees aware of the money the district was spending on substitutes coincided with a reduction in the average number of sick days taken per teacher.
In 2015-16, West Memphis teachers took an average of 11 sick days each, including for long-term illnesses and maternity leave, Robb said. In the 2016-17 school year, teachers were absent an average of seven days each and during the 2017-18 school year, nine days each.
Robb said he's challenged teachers to average no more than six days of sick leave this school year as a way to cut substitute expenses and keep employee salaries competitive.
"We're in a declining enrollment school district, as most districts are on this side of the state," Robb said of his east Arkansas school system. "So we've got to compete for teachers to attract teachers here."
The district reported spending $528,109 on substitutes during the 2017-18 school year, according to state substitute data. During the 2016-17 school year, the district spent $679,298.
In the state-controlled Dollarway School District in Jefferson County, Superintendent Barbara Warren said addressing teacher absences is one of many ways to improve schools. Measuring teacher absences may indicate other problems in the classroom outside of a teacher's control, such as higher-than-usual student needs, she said.
Warren said she plans to use the data she's gathering to eventually send letters to teachers who have missed a certain number of days, just as the district sends to parents when students have had several absences.
The letter to teachers would be a "friendly reminder," she said, that "we need them and their absences makes a difference."
The district might revise personnel policies to more clearly address absences, she said, adding that she hopes to engage more teachers in the process.
"Accountability is important," Warren said, "and we're trying to get there."
Dollarway spent $702,502 on substitutes during the 2017-18 school year.
Koehler, the state teacher association president, noted that some school districts offer services, such as yoga, to teachers to help reduce stress. She said districts should have conversations about offering stress-reducing activities.
Washam, the Pulaski County Special district teacher, suggested rewarding teachers who are consistently present, increasing pay and preventing teachers from hitting the maximum of their possible annual pay, like Washam says she already has hit at age 47.
"We don't have a lot of new teachers coming into [teaching]," she said. "Our legislators are going to have to make some changes to encourage young people to come into it."
Officials have moved toward that.
In February, state lawmakers approved an increase in the minimum teacher salary law to $32,800 for the coming school year. The minimum will increase to $36,000 by 2023.
Some school districts have offered incentives to teachers in the past for perfect attendance.
Koehler recalled her time as a teacher in the Little Rock School District when teachers received extra money for good attendance. But the novelty of winning a few hundred dollars every semester eventually wore off for longtime teachers, she said. The district no longer offers the incentive.
In the Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District, Assistant Superintendent Gregory Hodges last year offered awards to schools -- a set of Chromebooks -- and to individual teachers -- an afternoon off in which he would substitute -- as a way to boost teacher attendance.
"I told principals that if teachers are too sick to be here, we don't want you to come to work," Hodges said. "All you will do is make everybody else sick.
"I want teachers to fight for those days where 'I can come but I just don't feel like it,'" he said. "I want you to fight and push through and come on those days. At the end of the day, it's what is best for kids. There is no replacement for a teacher standing in front of a class or working with kids. You can't replace that."
Greg Rogers, the state agency’s assistant commissioner for fiscal and administrative services, is shown in this photo.
Gina Windle, chief of staff at the Arkansas Education Department, is shown in this photo.
SundayMonday on 03/24/2019
Print Headline: High cost, little consistency in tracking Arkansas teacher absences