Mobile County Public School Superintendent Martha Peek apologized this week for a controversial letter employees received in October addressing her administration’s concerns with a high number of absences among the district’s teachers.
While she said the letter was “sent out in good faith,” Peek told reporters Wednesday evening she “regretted” it had been negatively received and now wishes its “wording had been different.”
The letters — sent from MCPSS Human Resources Manager Bryan Hack — included a tally of each teacher’s absences from the previous year. However, the computer program used to compile that data did not differentiate between types of absences and also didn’t account for teacher’s earned sick and personal time.That means some educators were initially told that absences for things like jury duty, family deaths, long-term illness, maternity leave and required professional development would be counted against them and would be documented in their personnel file.
It also said that using accumulated sick days for “anything other than your sickness or that of a family member” is violative of state law and “may be considered fraud.” Many teachers, like Leanne Berg, especially took issue with that portion of the letter — calling it a “veiled threat of prosecution” based on inaccurate data.
“To be accused of committing fraud is not intimidating to me, it is offensive,” Berg said. “When relying on computers and simple numbers, there’s no way to weed out the legitimate and the abuse. Our immediate supervisors know our situations, and it should be their responsibility to pursue disciplinary actions when it’s warranted.”
On Wednesday, Berg told school board members that she used 13.5 days of sick or personal time in 2015, nine of which were for her father’s death, and still has more than 70 days of earned personal time at her disposal.
While the letters are still not sitting well with a number of teachers, the school system was quick to respond. On Nov. 3, Hack sent out an email to all teachers explaining the error with the data in the letter, adding that they were “not punitive and will not be included in personnel files.”
“I can certainly understand the concern that was expressed, and we do want our employees to know that we appreciate them and what they do each and every day,” Peek said. “Everyone needed to be aware of the attendance, though I do wish the wording had been different. That didn’t happen, but we’re going to move forward and learn from this experience.”
The Alabama Education Association (AEA) was involved in the process to develop the letters, but this week AEA Representative Jesse McDaniel claimed recommendations the teacher’s union made before the letters were mailed out had been ignored by the school system.
McDaniel said the system’s effort to address attendance concerns had been “a colossal failure, at best” and could possibly have violated the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA). However, a representative of the American Federation of Teachers, another local union, publicly accused AEA of misrepresenting the situation to boost its membership.
“Some of (their) input was implemented in these letters,” Wade Perry of the AFT said. “Then, before the letters were mailed out, copies were sent to all three AEA representatives.”
While McDaniel did say AEA was involved in the process early on, he also pointed out that state law requires school administrators to meet and confer with “local employees’ professional organization” before making policy changes that directly impact those employees.
He also stated that of the “eight recommendations” AEA made to the school system, only two were included in the letters that teachers received last month.
AEA members and non-affiliated teachers were upset by the letter, though, and a number of educators attended Wednesday’s meeting to express those concerns to the board.
Regardless of any mistakes that were made, Peek said the issue of absences among the system’s more than 7,000 teachers remains a concern. According to data provided by MCPSS, the national average is 10 absences per teacher, per school year.
Local records indicate the average within the MCPSS is 14 days per teacher, per school year, and according to Peek, providing substitutes during those absences routinely cost the school system around $6 million a year.
However, physical education instructor Donna Marsh suggested the school system likely wasted a fair amount of money when it opted to mail out inaccurate letters that, so far, haven’t done much to address the problem they were intended to solve.
“The letters referenced the $6 million spent on substitutes last year, yet our school system felt it was necessary to spend — and I’m calculating here — over $10,000 in postage to mail the letters to the employees in the first place,” Marsh told the board.
According to Peek, though, “It’s not so much the dollar amount as it is the learning that is interrupted in the classroom” that has administrators worried about teachers being absent. However, she added that MCPSS would be working in the future to ensure things like professional development aren’t pulling teachers from the classroom as well.
If those changes are made, Peek will have an opportunity to oversee them now that she’s received a second extension of her employment contract. Though her contract expired in June, Peek wasn’t required to inform the board of her intentions about renewing it until December.
This week the board put rumors of Peek’s retirement to rest when it approved the one-year extension to her contract, which will expire in June of 2018. Peek was named the system’s first female superintendent in 2012.
If she retires at that time, Peek will have served more than 46 years as either a teacher, principal or administrator in the MCPSS system.
Updated at 2:25 p.m., Nov. 17, to include additional comments from AEA Rep. Jessie McDaniel.