Teachers’ sick leave decision awaits meeting|[6/02/05]

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 2, 2005

A course of action in dealing with Mississippi’s new sick leave conversion law won’t be clear until a meeting of the state’s school superintendents later this month, said Dr. James Price, superintendent of the Vicksburg Warren County School District.

“I’m not doing anything until I get direction from somebody on this,” Price said, referring to the statute passed during the regular session containing a provision saying sick leave for teachers must mirror that available to state employees.

“I’ve asked for interpretations on it, but haven’t gotten an acceptable answer yet,” Price said.

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State Sen. Mike Chaney, R-Vicksburg, author of Senate Bill 2247, has said the statute was written to bring state law into compliance with opinion letters from the Attorney General’s Office dating to 1989 and actually allows more total leave and accumulated leave.

Price said, however, that because it caps sick leave at 7.5 days as a portion of total leave, it may have an effect.

Steve Williams, director of Educational Accountability in the state Education Department, indicated it is up to the district to decide how to categorize the eligible days off. Under the new provisions, teachers can be given up to 34.5 days of combined personal leave time and sick time. Unused time can be credited toward retirement.

“PERS (Public Employees Retirement System of Mississippi) says it’s fine to put all the days into sick leave as they don’t exceed the 34.5 days,” Williams said.

“The intent was that they didn’t care what pot they put them in, or what they decided to call them. My effort has been to assist Dr. Price and address the problems,” Williams said.

Chaney pointed out that the 34.5-day ceiling would give teachers in the Vicksburg district 12 more days of total leave than existing policy if approved by the board of trustees.

That policy currently tops out at 22 days’ total leave – two personal days and 20 sick leave days for teachers with 30 or more years.

Denise Mounger, deputy legal affairs director on staff with PERS, said the agency is in a position only to interpret the aggregate number of combined personal and sick leave days and not to interpret a school district’s policy.

“Before this, the school districts had no statutory authority to convert personal leave time to sick time. Now they do, and this was the whole purpose,” Mounger said.

The cost to the school system of using substitutes to fill in for teachers on sick leave can be up to $100 per day, depending on whether it is short- or long-term leave.

“There will always be three classes of teachers when it comes to sick leave, those who use them when they are available, those who never use them, and ones who truly get sick and need to use them,” Price said.

The issue will not be up for discussion with the Vicksburg Warren School District board at its June 16 meeting, as only the budget will be approved.

The school budget year starts July 1, and, Price said, state allocations this year will fall $750,000 short of full funding under the Mississippi Adequate Education Program.

This year’s total budget, $72 million, was funded without an increase in local taxes.