LEWISTON – Lewiston teachers get 15 a year.

Auburn’s get 17.

Teachers in Maine are allotted an average of 15 to 17 paid sick days for a work year of between 180 and 190 days.

Taxpayer advocates say that’s too generous and costs too much – Lewiston and Auburn each budgeted about $300,000 for substitutes last year – but teachers say the nature of the job demands more time off.

They are exposed to many viruses because they work in confined spaces, said Mark Gray, executive director of the Maine Education Association. “When one person has a cold, it spreads quickly.” Until they build up immunity, new teachers in early grades get sick often, he said.

According to a Sun Journal survey, most teachers don’t come close to using all of their sick time. In Lewiston the average was 6.4 days; in Auburn, 7.4 days; in Rumford, 9 days. Fayette had the highest average, 10.5 days; Sabattus had the lowest, 4.2.

Businesses in Androscoggin County offer between 5 and 12 sick days a year, according to a 2005 Chamber of Commerce survey. At Geiger in Lewiston, full-time employees get seven days.

Seventeen days for a 185-day work year is “excessive” by business standards, said Peter Geiger, executive vice president of Geiger. “That’s 10 percent of the days they work.”

Geiger employees work 252 days a year, he said. “I realize in schools teachers are exposed to kids coughing and such. Maybe they do need more sick time,” Geiger said. But, he added, there’s a cost.

According to data gathered from school departments, Auburn budgeted $281,807 last year for substitute teachers; Lewiston budgeted $310,000; Jay, $113,800; SAD 17 in the Oxford Hills area, $200,000; and SAD 39 in Buckfield, $60,000.

‘A lot of exposure’

Teacher sick time should be looked at in terms of the overall benefits, said Timothy Wegmann, co-president of the Auburn Education Association. For example, teachers don’t get paid vacation time, he said. “We have the summer off, but none of that’s paid.”

(Teachers can choose to be paid year-round or only during the school year. A typical Auburn teacher, with 10 years of experience and credits toward a master’s degree, would earn about $38,000 a year, said Assistant Superintendent Tom Morrill.)

Wegmann acknowledged that some people in the private sector have it worse. His wife has had jobs that didn’t offer any sick time, he said.

But teachers typically don’t use all of their allotted time, he said. “If you look at what people are allotted and what they use, the vast majority use it for major illnesses, not on a regular basis.”

Two weeks ago he used a few sick days “after three kids came in, coughing all over me. We get a lot of exposure.”

Teachers are conscientious, he said, and worry about their students missing lessons. Even when they’re sick, they often won’t miss work. “It’s easier to come in than do a lesson plan for the substitute,” Wegmann said.

Advocating for change

Growing budgets and property taxes are causing many – especially senior citizens – to question school spending. Tax advocates are pointing to teacher sick time as an example of education budgets being out of whack.

“Teacher sick time is very indicative of how things are,” said Ron Potvin of the Small Property Taxpayers of Auburn. One frustration the taxpayer group has is the city’s inability to rein in or even probe negotiated benefits and salaries. There’s a “stranglehold” on contracts, and no ability to debate the costs, Potvin said.

“Is it reasonable for teachers to have 50 percent more sick time for 30 percent less work? That’s what really bothers people,” Potvin said.

He said teacher sick time should be cut back to what businesses typically offer, one day a month.

Auburn City Councilor Ray Berube, the city’s representative on the School Committee, also believes teachers get too many sick days. “I know people who work in places who don’t receive any sick days at all. They work holidays and the summer.”

Berube believes teachers should get five sick days a year. If they didn’t use it, they could be paid for it, he said.

He charged that as long as school boards are made up of people “who could care less about the struggles of retirees, nothing ever changes.”

L-A looking at reducing costs

But things may change.

The Auburn School Committee has offered to pay teachers for not using sick time if spending on substitute teachers can be held to a certain level. If the lower cost target were reached, savings would be split between teachers and taxpayers, Assistant Superintendent Morrill said.

So far, “it looks encouraging,” he said. Teacher absences are down, but school’s not out until June 18 and “we have a number of pregnancies and serious illnesses,” he cautioned.

In Lewiston, city officials and the teachers’ union have agreed to review sick time to cut costs.

“We think there’s too much use of that benefit,” said School Committee member Tom Shannon. “There’s an awful lot of sick days being used. We know we have a problem.”

Maybe teachers should earn sick time “so that it’s not all front-loaded. It’s not intended as ‘you use it or you lose it,'” Shannon said. He doesn’t think that thinking is typical among teachers. “They’re not that kind of group.” However, the money spent on substitutes “isn’t a pretty picture,” he said.

If teachers were asked to give up sick days, Auburn’s Wegmann said he’d ask to make up the benefit on another level. The existing sick-time benefit has been going on for decades, he said.

The MEA’s Gray pointed out that school districts look at the benefits other districts are offering and try to match them to remain competitive.

He questioned whether reducing sick days would bring taxpayers any savings.

“If an employee is sick, he or she shouldn’t be coming to work and spreading that illness. That’s the purpose of having sick days. We don’t have widespread evidence there’s an abuse of sick time,” Gray said.

Most districts pay only $50 to $75 a day for substitutes, he said. And while teachers can accrue sick time – Lewiston teachers can accrue 130 days and Auburn teachers, 120 – Maine teachers can cash in only 30 days at retirement, Gray said.

“There’s not a lot of savings there,” he said.

 


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