The Payson Unified School District board Monday night turned down a last-ditch compromise offered by the district’s teachers and capped payouts for unused sick time at 80 days after 20 years of service.
“I feel we’re all on different pages,” said Board Chairman Barbara Underwood to the roughly 50 teachers who attended in hopes the board would accept their compromise offer.
“Everybody will walk away tonight with this not being what they want.”
Fifth-grade teacher Wayne Gorry, who presented the plea for a compromise on behalf of the teachers, said “that’s my last board meeting,” as he left the building with a large group of teachers right after the vote. “Why come? Why express our opinion? They’re not being transparent.”
“I thought a compromise was a 50/50 split,” said middle school teacher Trevor Creighton. “There was no transparency at all. I’m not even sure what the policy is now.”
Teachers who have already accumulated more than 80 days would still get paid for those days when they retire or get laid off. Above that cap, teachers would get paid half the substitute teacher rate at the end of each year for any unused sick days. Currently, 26 of the district’s 300 employees have accumulated more than 100 hours of sick leave.
Currently, teachers and administrators can accumulate an unlimited number of sick days and get paid at the $80-a-day substitute teacher rate when they leave.
Teachers had initially proposed a 180-day cap, then a 120-day cap prior to an executive session last week at which the board evidently settled instead on the 80-day limit.
State law allows governing boards to hold executive sessions to discuss lawsuits with an attorney, hear personnel issues and discuss negotiating positions for salaries, working conditions and benefits. However, the district has no teacher’s union and no employee groups with which the district negotiates a contract.
The board had apparently settled on the 80-hour cap prior to the public meeting. Underwood and board member Rory Huff both read prepared statements supporting the 80-hour cap.
None of the other board members explained their vote in favor of the cap. The board vote was unanimous.
The board discussion of the new policy left many of the listening teachers confused. Huff’s motion said that all teachers and administrators would become eligible for a sick leave payout capped at 80 days after eight years of service. Current employees would still be paid for sick days earned over the cap to this point.
After the meeting, Superintendent Casey O’Brien explained that the motion will make teachers eligible for partial payments after eight years instead of 10.
However, teachers will still get paid at half the substitute teacher rate if they leave after 8-20 years of service. That would be a maximum payout of $3,200.
Only after 20 years would the payout come at the full substitute teacher rate for the 80 days accumulated beneath the cap — or a maximum of $6,400.
O’Brien said he had not suggested the 80-day cap, but declined to talk about anything that happened in executive session, in accordance with state law.
During the public meeting on Monday, Gorry had renewed his plea for the board to accept the teachers’ compromise — which would have raised the maximum payout after 20 years of service to $9,600.
He said the current policy enables the district to compete with other districts to recruit teachers and also saves the district money by encouraging teachers to not use their sick days. The district has to hire a substitute teacher anytime a teacher misses work, whereas the district incurs no extra cost when an administrator or classified employee misses work. Moreover, students often lose instructional time when a substitute fills in.
“We demonstrated that teachers have already made more than their fair share of sacrifices,” said Gorry.
The administration has proposed layoffs and an increase in class sizes this year to close a projected $930,000 deficit. The state has also started to phase out stipends for extra training, which could result in a $2,000 to $6,000 pay cut for most of the district’s teachers.
Gorry said the changes would offend and discourage teachers, but wouldn’t save much money — if any. A sharp change in the sick leave policy would only further damage the already “terrible” morale of the teaching staff, he said.
“For the sake of students, at some point you need to find a way to show some support for teachers and hopefully allow them to thrive in their work environment and not just survive.”
Gorry presented a table showing that school districts in Benson, Flagstaff, Page, Williams Prescott and Round Valley all have policies much more generous than the proposed 80-day cap.
However, Huff argued that many of those districts are currently debating whether to curb their own payouts in the face of the steady loss of state support, which has reduced per-student spending to 2006 levels.
Board member Matt Van Camp challenged Gorry to provide evidence that reducing the sick leave payouts will affect teacher recruitment.
Gorry replied, “It’s reasonable to assume that if your benefits are on the low end of the scale, people are more likely to take a position elsewhere. But do I have a study? No.”
The decision will have virtually no impact on the district’s current financial crisis, since current employees will get payouts for all the days they’ve earned up to this point.
After the meeting, Underwood said “I feel we need to somehow keep trimming our budget and you have to look at everything. We’ve got to reduce our budget with a little here and a little there. I gotta tell you Wayne’s speech tugged at my heart, but we’ve got to look at the whole budget.”
But most of the teachers interviewed as they left the meeting in seeming dismay said they felt the board had brushed aside their comments and proposals and made their decision behind closed doors.
“I got my hopes up,” said one teacher who asked not to be named. “I thought they were actually going to talk to us.”
Gorry concluded, “I wish they would have told us up front, ‘we’ve made our decision,’ and told us not to waste our time.”