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Unpaid leave scrutinized

The Red Wing School District granted 235 days of unpaid non-sick leave during the 2010-2011 school year, documents from the district office show.

Last year, that number was only 9.5. So far this year, only six unpaid leave days have been granted.

Some Red Wing School Board members say the district is simply trying to get unpaid leaves under control and back to 2001-02 levels, when just a handful of days were granted.

But at Monday evening's board meeting, member Steve Anderson again contended that recent decrease in the number of leaves granted is just too much.

"You can't change something that drastically with no explanation and not have a problem. In my almost 20 years of management, I would have lost a lot of employees if I had tried to change something that drastically," said Anderson, who works as a supervisor with the Dakota County Sheriff's Office.

Board member Mike Christensen disagreed, stating that district employees understood their duties when they accepted their job and should plan days off accordingly.

"We have a lot of holidays throughout the year," he said. "The calendar is available two years in advance. Everybody needs to plan their vacation; why can't they be planned to coincide with school holidays?

"When you're hired for a job, you acknowledge a specific set of perimeters you're expected to work within," Christensen continued.

The issue of unpaid leave was also discussed at length at the board's March 4 meeting. At that time school district employees raised concerns during the meeting's public comment period, stating that some employees have quit because they were not granted unpaid leave.

Anderson, whose wife works for the district as a cook, asked the district to be more lenient in granting unpaid leaves at that meeting as well. The board took no formal action then, but compiled a number of questions that members said they wanted answered as they continue to address the issue.

Many of those questions were answered in documents from the district office that Supt. Karsten Anderson included with the board's agenda for Monday's meeting. Those documents included the number of leaves granted each year going back to 2001, information on how leave requests are reviewed and a timeline showing when the board has discussed the issue and what actions have been taken.

"We needed to get this under control," Board member Paul Kramp said of when the board began examining the issue during the 2010-11 school year. "It was excessive. We gave (former Supt. Stan Slessor) the direction to look into it. It was one of the first things we gave Karsten to look into."

Finance Director Brad Johnson also included information in the board's packet about how the district's costs for substitutes increased dramatically with the increase of unpaid leaves. He said costs went from $190,000 in 2000-01 to $306,000 in 2010-11.

"That's a 50 percent increase in substitute costs," Christensen pointed out.

The board packet also included excerpts from the employees' contracts related to unpaid leave requests. All say leaves of absence may be granted to the employee at the discretion of administrators, the School Board or the superintendent.

"Technically, you could say the superintendent or School Board has a right to deny it," Steve Anderson said. "Yes that's true, but 235 (days) to 9.5 is too drastic a change, and I don't think it's fair to our staff to treat them that way and I think we need to look carefully at that."

But other board members spoke in favor of reducing the number of unpaid leaves granted.

"The question we need to ask is, 'What is an acceptable reason to put your responsibilities aside?'" Christensen said. "Leave of absence is not a right."

"Education has a well-established working environment," echoed Board member Mark Ryan, a retired teacher. "Most people know it's a fairly restricted working environment.

"You signed a contract when you came in outlining the year," Ryan continued, adding that in 24 years of teaching, he only requested leave once.

Board member Janie Farrar called for better communication between employee groups and the district office, but added that the issue needs to be brought up during contract negotiations.

"I urge people to deal with this in contractual way," she said. "We do need to go by what's in the contracts."

Board member Emily Baldwin and Chairwoman Heidi Jones also spoke in favor of reducing the number of unpaid leaves.

Because the issue was not on the agenda as an action item, the board held a lengthy discussion and took no formal action.

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.