Report: 38% of WV teachers absent at least 10 days a year

Ryan Quinn , Staff Writer

Nearly four in 10 West Virginia pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade public school teachers missed at least 10 school days during the 2013-14 school year — the fourth-highest rate in the nation, according to an Education Week Research Center analysis of federal data released earlier this summer.

Hawaii had the highest rate of teachers missing 10 or more days, at 75 percent, followed by Nevada, at 49 percent, and Florida, at 39 percent.

Then came West Virginia, at 38 percent, followed by: Rhode Island and Wyoming, both at 37 percent; North Carolina, 34 percent; Virginia, 33 percent; and Alabama and Arkansas, both at 32 percent.

The national rate was 27 percent. Three Western states had the lowest rates: Idaho, at 18 percent; South Dakota, 17 percent; and Utah, 16 percent.

While the study didn’t include a county-by-county breakdown, analyst Alexandra Harwin provided the rates for several counties for which the Gazette-Mail requested information. Kanawha was at 30 percent, Putnam at 46 percent, Cabell at 40 percent, Berkeley at 22 percent and McDowell at 60 percent.

The Education Week Research Center — part of the nonprofit Editorial Projects in Education, which publishes the national education news source Education Week — based its analysis on the U.S. Department of Education’s 2013-14 Civil Rights Data Collection.

That same school year — according to an Associated Press analysis of the same federal data set released in June — about 14 percent of West Virginia’s K-12 public school students, 40,000 out of 283,800, missed at least 15 days of school. The nationwide rate was reported as about 13 percent, although the federal education department has said there were errors discovered in Florida’s submitted data that might mean that large state’s students aren’t fully represented.

Education Week Research Center Director Holly Yettick said her organization, just like the federal government, defined a teacher as absent if he or she missed a day in the regular school year when they would otherwise be expected to be teaching students in an assigned class.

“This includes both days taken for sick leave and days taken for personal leave,” the definition states. “Personal leave includes voluntary absences for reasons other than sick leave. Administratively approved leave for professional development, field trips or other off-campus activities with students should not be included.”

Yettick said her group’s study excluded juvenile justice facilities and schools without at least one full-time teacher, along with data that appeared unreliable or missing.

Former state senators Clark Barnes, a Republican, and Erik Wells, a Democrat who’s currently fighting in court to be allowed to run as an independent against Republican Kanawha County Clerk Vera McCormick, sponsored legislation (SB 514) in 2013 that would have stopped granting teachers their 15 annual leave days at the start of each school year. The bill instead would have made teachers accrue 1.5 sick days per month over their regular 10 months of annual employment.

Kanawha schools Superintendent Ron Duerring backed the bill, saying the up-front leave method encourages absenteeism.

But the bill — which faced union criticism and doubts about the data alleging that teacher absenteeism is a problem — died with a split vote by the Senate Education Committee.
When legislators were pushing the bill, then-state schools superintendent Jim Phares said informal data showed teachers were missing more days than their students in most West Virginia counties. However, Phares said he wanted more precise data about teacher absenteeism.

Former West Virginia Department of Education spokeswoman Liza Cordeiro said in spring 2015 that the state didn’t have teacher absenteeism data that was comparable among counties, but the department was “currently working with a team to develop standardized reporting categories and should have concrete numbers by this summer.”
However, current spokeswoman Kristin Anderson said last week that the state still doesn’t have standardized data.

“School-level leaders are responsible for managing and monitoring staff absences which are not required to be reported to the state level in any consistent manner,” she wrote in an email to the Gazette-Mail.

The Civil Rights Data Collection from which the Education Week Research Center pulled its data doesn’t occur every year.

Kanawha public schools’ human resources director, Carol Hamric, said last week that, because of an employee in her office being off work, she couldn’t calculate the percentage of Kanawha teachers who missed 10 or more days in the last school year. But she did provide the average number of days missed per teacher: 8.71 last school year and 8.59 in 2013-14.

Christine Campbell, president of West Virginia’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers, said her union will continue to oppose changing the law that grants the 15 leave days to teachers up front, saying she doesn’t want to effectively reduce a benefit in teachers’ contracts while their other benefits are also dwindling and salaries are still low, when compared to the national average.

She said law changes in recent years have erased statewide incentives for teachers to not use leave days, and most of the counties that had offered incentives on a local level have gotten rid of them amid budget concerns.
Gary Cook, Putnam’s assistant superintendent for personnel/pupil services, wrote in an email that his school system is concerned about teacher absenteeism, and pointed to state rule changes that might be contributing to the issue.

“Educators in the ‘old’ system can use unused days to purchase insurance or use as time for retirement,” Cook said. “However, the new system does not allow this. A teacher can carry over unused days from year to year, but once you retire with days unused — you lose them.”

Campbell said her union’s priority is filling the state’s teacher vacancies, where there are no certified teachers for an entire 180-day school year.

“It’s not going to help our teacher shortage to go backwards on the contracts that they already have,” she said.

Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter.