Sunday, May 4, 2008

Administrators went to Nevada to catch teachers on day off

The Californian
May 2, 2008

Two school district administrators traveled almost 300 miles and crossed state lines to catch teachers they mistakenly believed were using sick days to take a three-day weekend in Nevada, according to teachers who call the incident "creepy" and "Orwellian."

Six teachers at Elsinore High School in Wildomar took April 11 off, to go to Laughlin, Nev., said Juan Caballero, one of the educators who made the trip. The time they took off was in exchange for extra work they had done over the year, he added.

While in their hotel, the Aquarius Casino and Resort, the teachers say they were approached by Assistant Superintendent for Personnel Services Kip Meyer and Elsinore High School Principal Jon Hurst in the restaurant.

"We were having breakfast and I looked up, and they were walking toward us in the restaurant," said Ed Jones, a retired Elsinore High teacher who was with the group. "I said, 'Good Lord, there's Hurst.'"

Jones said that while Hurst looked "a little embarrassed," Meyer said something like, "I understand you guys are going to be playing golf at 10 a.m."

Caballero, who wasn't at the breakfast, said he didn't believe his colleagues' story until he received a call from teachers union President Karl Stuck, saying the administrators had traveled hundreds of miles to take pictures of the teachers golfing.

"We're still just flabbergasted at this kind of Orwellian, draconian approach," Caballero said.

Public money

Hurst referred questions to district spokesman Jose Carvajal, who declined to confirm or deny the incident.

Meyer said that, in general, he investigates concerns about fraud in reporting absences.

"I would say that almost every assistant superintendent who oversees personnel would have to investigate if there was a concern of mismanagement of attendance reporting," he said. "These are public funds."

Meyer declined to comment on whether he had ever crossed state lines to investigate a case and would not confirm the details of the Laughlin incident.

"Those are personnel issues," Meyer said. "The staff member has a right to confidentiality."

However, charges from Meyer's district credit card, which were released in response to a public records request, shows two charges in Laughlin for that day, including a charge for $21.53 at Windows on the River Buffet, a restaurant at the Aquarius.

Carvajal declined to specify the reason for the charges, but said Meyer was on official district business.

Past practice

Steve Clower, one of the six teachers who traveled to Nevada, said administrators indicated they knew of the trip in advance from reading teachers' e-mail. But if they believed the trip was improper, Clower questions why they didn't talk to the teachers before they left.

"Instead of coming and telling us about it and trying to stop it, they spent extra money by sending two district administrators to catch us," Clower said.

Teachers earn compensatory days for substitute-teaching during their planning periods, time designated for them to receive a break from teaching to plan instruction.

Clower said Elsinore High teachers typically report the day in advance as a sick day and a school employee later converts the days to "comp days." Clower said he was told to do that to avoid confusion between comp days and time taken off for workers' compensation, and so school staff members can ensure teachers have accumulated enough comp time to take a day off. Caballero also said the "past practice" for teachers at his school is to call in sick and have the day converted to a "comp day."

Carvajal said teachers can report comp days through the district's automated system, which employees use to report the reasons for their absences by phone or via computer. The system has separate codes for compensatory days and workers' comp days.

Meyer acknowledged that the way absences are logged varies from school to school, something he wants to change.

"What I am finding as I look into the procedures for reporting (absences) is that things are not consistently done throughout our district," he said.

Caballero said the teachers were called in after the Nevada trip and told they would be docked a day's pay. He said that when teachers explained they were using comp days, Meyer told them he would take the matter to Superintendent Frank Passarella.

Rising substitute costs

The episode comes as the district is looking into the use of sick days and personal days amid concerns over the rising costs of substitutes. From September to March, the district spent $3.3 million on substitutes for teaching and nonteaching employees, an increase of about $600,000 from the same period last year.

School board members said they were concerned about the rising costs because of anticipated state budget cuts and declining attendance rates, which has led the district to cut about $9 million from the budget for the current year and next year.

Meyer says one possible reason for the increase could be that the district recently upped pay for substitute teachers by $5 a day. Another reason, district officials say, could be that teachers are taking more time off for required training.

Meyer said he doesn't think "there's an overriding abuse" of the district's system, but believes his division has "to have better procedures in place."

Teachers receive 10 sick days a year, two of which can be used instead as "personal necessity" days. If teachers don't use up all their days, they carry over to the next year.

Records from the district's automated system show the district's 1,100 teachers and other certificated employees called in 4,972 sick days and 1,423 personal days from Aug. 16 to April 23. That is down from the same time last school year, when teachers called in 5,457 sick days and 1,493 personal days.

This school year, teachers reported missing 5,049 days for official business, such as attending conferences and meetings, through April 23. Last school year, teachers called in 4,463 missed days for official business.

Carvajal notes that those numbers are self-reported by employees and don't include changes by teachers who, for instance, initially pressed the wrong code and later changed the reason for their absences.

Abusing the system?

Trustee Tom Thomas said he believes some employees are abusing the system and that the issue has to be watched closely during tough budget times.

"I think in any large organization, whether it's a school district or a large private business, I think people can take advantage," Thomas said. "I don't think it's terribly widespread. I just think it's something we look at as we look at all expenditures."

Caballero said he doesn't understand why the district officials who are concerned about saving money would waste money trying catch teachers doing something wrong when he said it would have been simple to clear the matter up beforehand.

"Why didn't they just simply tell us and have a conversation?" he asked. "I'm still creeped out by the whole situation."

Contact staff writer Rani Gupta at (951) 676-4315, Ext. 2625, or