September 21, 2013

Modesto district paying absent teachers

Modesto City Schools has spent at least $5 million over the last three school years paying teachers to stay home, and it won’t say why. Over the past three fiscal years, the Modesto board approved 304 paid leaves, averaging nine weeks each, for teachers and administrators. The practice involved 250 individuals, or roughly 15 percent of its employees with teaching certificates.

Modesto City Schools has spent at least $5 million over the last three school years paying teachers to stay home – and it won’t say why.

The school board approved 283 paid leaves – averaging nearly 12 weeks each – for teachers and administrators in the 2010-11, 2011-12 and 2012-13 school years, a Bee investigation found. The practice involved 233 individuals, or roughly 15percent of its employees with teaching certificates.

The number of paid leaves granted by the Modesto district tower over other districts in Stanislaus County, even when adjusting for its larger size.

The Bee submitted California Public Records Act requests on Feb. 19 and July 30 asking what the leaves were for and what they cost. The district would not discuss any reasons for leaves, saying even a general statement about them would violate privacy constraints, but provided the teachers’ contract. On Friday it provided the cost of paid leaves for the last school year.

Superintendent Pam Able and school board members declined to comment, referring the matter to Craig Rydquist, associate superintendent of human resources.

The Modesto Teachers Association also refused to comment beyond noting the union fully reimburses the district for the president and director’s payroll costs. Those two leaves each year were not included in the Bee investigation.

The cost for paid leaves for 2012-13 was $2.2 million, of which $281,365 were for paid administrative leaves, Rydquist said. The administrative actions involve Modesto City teachers or administrators removed from campuses by district decision. The category generally includes anyone accused of a crime or under investigation. In 2013, there were nine cases of paid administrative leave, he said.

“Providing information related to the nature of the issues related to paid administrative leave does not respect the privacy of the individuals involved. It is our position that such information is exempt and/or privileged from disclosure,” Rydquist wrote in an Aug. 8 response to Bee requests.

One case that made headlines last year was former Modesto City teacher Ralph Bradley Keith, put on paid administrative leave after being arrested on suspicion of firing a gun toward his neighbor’s property four years ago and fired after his conviction in October 2012. His leave cost the district more than $250,000, but does not appear on any of the board-approved lists.

Former Elliott Principal Julie Beebe was removed from campus Jan. 28 after protesting her dismissal and put on paid leave through year’s end, when the dismissal took effect. Enochs High band teacher David Boyatt was placed on paid administrative leave Feb. 25 through year’s end. Both contentious cases were widely known and confirmed by the district. Rydquist would not confirm any other cases.

The Bee’s investigation focused solely on paid leaves and did not include unpaid or partial-pay leaves, which might have indicated reduced hours, sabbaticals or extended sick leave.

It found high school teachers took more and longer leaves than elementary or junior high teachers.

The Bee’s database spans the administrations of former Superintendent Arturo Flores and Able. The leaves declined in Able’s first year as superintendent. But in 2012-13, the practice roared back with the district approving the most leaves for the longest time.

The district pays full salary during jury service, bereavement leave of up to five days and 10 sick days each year that can accumulate indefinitely. None of those require board approval, but might have been included for information. Military leave appears to be fully paid, and would require board approval.

For extended sick leave, after using up all sick leave teachers get the difference between what the district pays a substitute and their regular salary for up to 100 days, said Barbara Tanner of the Stanislaus County Office of Education. That so-called differential is mandated by state law, but would not be full pay and would not require board approval.

For on-the-job injuries, teachers receive full pay for up to 60 days under workers compensation, said Tanner, who is division director of human resources for the county office. “If it’s stress leaves, those also are claims under workers comp and are subject to acceptance by our (insurance) carrier,” Tanner said.

Modesto City’s paid leave numbers stand in contrast to Stanislaus County’s next-largest districts.

Turlock Unified, with about half as many teachers as Modesto City, placed one teacher on paid administrative leave last year, twice, for a total of seven days before the teacher resigned, Superintendent Sonny Da Marto said. His district’s only other paid leaves were partial pay for 20 ill or injured teachers who had exhausted sick leave.

Sylvan Union School District, in north Modesto, placed two teachers on paid administrative leave for a short period of time, said Superintendent Debra Hendricks.

In Ceres Unified, one teacher was on paid administrative leave all year, finally resigning. Four others were on paid leave for a total of 6.5 days, said Denise Wickham, head of personnel. “Most of the time, individuals are placed on paid leave while we investigate an allegation,” Wickham said.

Partial pay for ill or injured workers were the only other instances where Ceres paid off-duty teachers, said Superintendent Scott Siegel. “I cannot think of another situation that would not be a standard leave (such as bereavement, jury duty, personal necessity – which is deducted from sick leave, etc.) where a certificated employee was granted paid time off,” he said via e-mail.

Ceres teachers need to submit a doctor’s confirmation for any sick leave lasting longer than six days, but Modesto City’s contract asks only that teachers fill out a form after 15 days and says proof of illness may be required after 20 or in cases where there appears to be abuse of sick leave.

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