In my capacity as President of the Guilford County Association of Educators, I have spoken directly with Guilford County Schools Superintendent Sharon Contreras, Chief Financial Officer Angie Henry, and Chief of Schools Tony Watlington regarding the use of annual leave days for recent inclement weather. In all of these communications, sincere apologies from the district were extended to GCS employees regarding the lack of communication around the use of annual leave days for work days missed.
This is not an official district communication. Like you, I am a rank and file employee, not a district official or administrator. What follows reflects my current understanding and recommendations for ways that we might move forward.
Generally speaking the following applies to both certified and classified employees as both accrue annual leave at the same rate. At this point no staff, certified or classified, should have seen any decrease in their December paychecks. It should have been communicated ahead of time, but annual leave was used to assure there was no decrease in pay even though days have been lost due to inclement weather.
We are in an extraordinary situation. To date we have already lost 9 student days and 6 employee days due to inclement weather and were are only in December. This means that due to weather conditions out of anyone’s control, we have used up more days than we often lose in an entire year.
There are generally three types of leave available to district employees:
- Annual leave (sometimes called vacation days)
- Sick days
- Days without pay
Certified teachers also have a limited number of personal days that a teacher can use at their discretion but which require a deduction of $50 a day for the hiring of a substitute teacher.
10 month employees are contracted for a total of 215 days, which is a combination of work days and instructional days (days that students are in school). 10 month employees have a total 10 annual leave days built into the calendar every year including winter break and spring break. New employees accrue approximately 11.1 days of annual leave a year when they start, therefore most employees should not have maxed out annual leave time yet due to inclement weather.
In the cases where some employees have a negative annual leave balance on their December check stubs, most will earn enough leave through the rest of the year to cover that balance. Those that do not, will be contacted by payroll in May regarding an adjustment to their May paychecks.
According to NC state law, public school employees are paid for days worked, not days employed. The state will not pay public school employees for days not worked. This number of days worked is reported by the district every month to the state. This is not the same in every state, but currently there is no flexibility the district can provide regarding days worked without jeopardizing employee pay.
Unfortunately, when a “State of Emergency” is declared by state or local officials this does not automatically create a waiver for student or employee days. Until such a waiver is granted, the use of annual leave days is the only way to ensure that payroll runs without interruption and employees don’t lose pay due to the time out. No other type of leave would qualify in this situation. The state may decide to grant a waiver for some of the snow days, but given the NC General Assembly is not likely to take this issue up in their lame duck special session and does not reconvene until late January, we are not likely to know what relief, if any, a waiver would provide until February or March of 2019.
In my meetings to research this subject, district officials sincerely apologized for the miscommunication. This particular situation was further complicated by the fact that payroll processes earlier in December than in other months. I reiterated my and other employee concerns that there should have been communication from the district prior to the use of annual leave. Every district official I have spoken to agrees. At the same time, I agree that the district made the correct choice to use annual leave to avoid any reductions to employee paychecks prior to the holidays.
It is important to be clear: this is an issue that is primarily the responsibility of the NC General Assembly. The only way the annual leave will be restored is if the North Carolina General Assembly provides a waiver and allows Guilford County Schools to pay employees for days not worked due to the inclement weather.
Despite the confusion created by the lack of communication, GCS made the decision to use annual leave in this most recent scenario in order to ensure employees received their full pay. In addition, this decision allows for some flexibility going forward as we wait to see how the state will respond to requests for waivers.
Regarding the use of optional teacher workdays, they are just that: optional. On days when there is inclement weather, the district is giving the option to report to work so that employees don’t have to use other types of leave. The district certainly wants employees to be safe and does have the right to close schools and use annual leave when they deem conditions are not safe. To be sure, there is a degree of subjectivity of what is “safe,” and GCAE will continue to bring your concerns around workplace safety issues to the district. However, it is important to note that when there is no optional workday offered, there is no room for the district to report a day worked to the state. This means that if Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday had all been optional work days instead of just Wednesday, it would not have been necessary to use annual leave for 12/13 and 12/14.
There have been numerous questions regarding the changing of annual leave days to optional workdays. At this point we are still on track to meet the minimum of 1,025 student instructional hours mandated by the state. Normally spring break is a block of annual leave for district employees. By changing some the days to optional work days it creates the flexibility to 1) keep spring break intact, 2) give employees without annual leave the opportunity to work so as not to lose pay, and 3) immediately shift those annual leave days to this pay period so no one experienced a loss in pay prior to to the holidays.
I have emphasized the need for principals and supervisors to work with employees in every way possible to help staff navigate these extraordinary circumstances. I have requested meeting dates in January for a “Meet and Confer Team” that the Guilford County Association of Educators will assemble to meet with district officials to work through these and other concerns. It is important to me that we hold the district accountable as appropriate. In this situation, my assessment is that the district made the right choice but did not communicate in an effective manner. It continues to be the position of GCAE and our state affiliate, NCAE, that the NC General Assembly needs to grant local school districts flexibility with school calendars so that we might avoid these types of situations as we move forward.
As always, thank you for all that you do. Our Guilford County Schools staff are truly the people that make it happen for our students every day. I appreciate the opportunity to serve you in my capacity as the President of GCAE. I hope you feel the the value of this organization here to represent our collective interests on the local, state, and national level.
President, Guilford County Association of Educators