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District examines unpaid leaves

It's been an issue discussed at Red Wing School Board meetings here and there over the past couple of years. But at Monday evening's meeting, unpaid leave took a center stage.

"People need time off. They do a hard job. It's not easy," Lori Mitchell told the board. She is the president of the Red Wing support personnel bargaining group.

Mitchell, along with about 12 other cooks, paraprofessionals and district employees, attended the meeting.

Leanne Anderson, president of the Red Wing cooks union, told board members that an employee who had been with the district for 19 years recently resigned.

"It hurts ... knowing the main reason for her departure (was the district would not) grant her two unpaid days off," she said.

Lynn Diercks, who has held several positions with the district during 20 years, also spoke.

"We love working with the kids. But it does grind on you. Sometimes you need a mental health time," she said. "I ask you to consider that each case is being looked at individually and see if there's a way to work together - maybe put together a committee. We can't lose more people."

Board member Steve Anderson had brought the issue up at a recent board meeting, and it was at his request that the issue was on Monday's agenda.

"I've been in management for 20 years. One of the most important things with keeping good staff is respect and keeping morale up," he said.

Steve Anderson acknowledged that his wife works for the district. She is a cook and was in the audience Monday.

The board's official policy states that it is up to the board to determine if a conflict of interest exists and that it is up to the board member to notify the board of a potential conflict immediately.

"We need to address this issue because it hurts education," Steve Anderson said. "Sitting on a high horse and saying 'nope' is not an appropriate response to anything. And frankly that's what's been happening."

Currently, nine-month support personnel and cooks receive eight paid holidays, two personnel days and can earn up to nine sick days a year. Finance Director Brad Johnson added that they also get time off during the district's winter, spring and summer breaks.

"Not everyone's spouse works for the school district and gets summers off," Leanne Anderson said, pointing out that that can make vacations difficult to plan.

Unpaid time off is at the discretion of an employee's supervisor, the school superintendent and the School Board, contracts state. Board member Mike Christensen said unpaid leave started to become an issue just before the 2010-2011 school year.

During that time, he said, employees were requesting unpaid leave from their supervisors, getting denied, and then going to former Supt. Stan Slessor, who would grant unpaid leave requests.

Current administration and the personnel committee then began denying more requests. Documents from the district show that 65.25 unpaid leave days were granted in 2010-11. That number was up from 40.6 days granted during the 2009-10 school year.

"It's because they were going above their supervisors" that the issue was brought to the personnel committee at that time, Christensen said.

Since then, only 9.5 days were granted in 2011-12 and just six so far this year.

The board took no action on the subject at Monday's meeting. Instead, the board decided to send the issue to the personnel committee to be looked at before being brought back to the board at its April 1 meeting.

The personnel committee meeting has yet to be scheduled.

Sarah Gorvin
Sarah Gorvin has been with the Republican Eagle for two years and covers education, business and crime and courts. She graduated from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2010 with a  journalism degree.