The Payson Unified School District Board upset many teachers this week by capping payments for unused sick days.
We sympathize with the board’s intentions and the difficulty of the decision. But we think the board doubled the blow to staff morale by conducting its key discussion behind closed doors.
The voters — and the district’s employees — deserved a chance to listen to the board debate the choices in a public meeting.
Instead, the board scheduled an executive session. At that meeting, the board members evidently decided to reject a plea from many of the district’s teachers to impose an 80-day cap on payouts for unused sick time after 20 years of service.
Current policy places no limit on the number of days teachers and administrators can accumulate.
The district’s teachers have absorbed a succession of blows — this year, they face the prospects of larger classes. The teachers at Frontier Elementary School accepted the closure without complaint. Teachers have not even publicly objected to the state’s plan to gradually eliminate incentive pay for extra training, which will cut the salaries of some of the district’s teachers by $2,000 to $6,000.
But for some reason, the plan to cap sick time payouts struck a nerve. Fifty teachers crowded into the board meeting to protest. Teachers offered a compromise — first a 180-day cap, then a 120-day cap. Clearly, the issue had assumed an importance to teachers far in excess of its financial impact. Moreover, the policy change won’t affect payouts for this year’s looming layoffs at all, since anyone laid off will get paid for the accumulated days under the existing policy.
Clearly, the teachers considered the policy change a slap in the face after a succession of blows.
At least one board member declared publicly she supported the teachers’ proposal.
But that was before the board held its executive session.
State law allows the board to discuss a short list of issues behind the closed doors of an executive session. Those exceptions mostly revolve around getting legal advice, negotiating contracts or hearing individual personnel matters.
One exception allows the board to hold an executive session to instruct its representatives regarding negotiations with employee organizations on salaries, benefits and working conditions.
The board invoked that exception in this case. We think that was a mistake.
For starters, the board wasn’t negotiating with the teachers. The district’s teachers don’t have a union and the board didn’t need to win their assent before changing the policy on sick leave.
So the board did not need to talk privately with its contract negotiators to settle on a bargaining strategy.
We believe that means the board could not invoke that clause.
Now, maybe a team of lawyers could make the argument that the board’s session meets the narrow legal definition.
No matter. It was still a mistake.
The board should have afforded the teachers and the voters the courtesy of fully discussing that issue in public.
Who came up with the 80-hour cap? What logic did each of the board members embrace?
How did each board member react to the teachers’ proposal?
Instead, two board members read prepared statements, three board members remained silent and the watching teachers felt both insulted and disrespected.
We certainly understand the board’s concern with balancing the budget while minimizing the impact on students. We certainly appreciate the hard, no-win choices the board faces this year.
But this bungled discussion of an issue of deep symbolic importance to the district’s long-suffering teachers seemed needlessly secretive and disrespectful.
We can only hope that in the painful days that lie ahead the board will conduct its discussions in the open and treat both the voters and the employees with more respect.