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Pasco County schools sick bank rules make it hard to aid ill teacher

LAND O'LAKES — The case of ailing Bayonet Point Middle School teacher Connie Duffy has outraged many and prompted Pasco School Board members to look for ways they can help.

But a review of state law and school district policies and contracts has left officials with little wiggle room in granting Duffy additional days from the employee sick leave bank.

"The days don't belong to the district. They don't belong to the board," employee relations director Terry Rhum reminded superintendent Heather Fiorentino on Monday, as they discussed possible options.

"That's why neither the district nor the board has the authority to give away those days."

The only group authorized to release additional sick days from the bank is the committee made up of teachers who contribute to it. And it has decided not to grant Duffy, who is in the late stages of inoperable cancer, more time from the bank for the time being.

She is expected to bring additional information from her doctor to the committee when it meets again April 21.

Perhaps the most important thing the district can do now, Fiorentino told Rhum, is to remind employees what their contract allows when it comes to using the sick leave bank.

That's the least the district should do, said Becky Parnell, a retired instructional assistant for the district who struggled through the sick leave bank process to gain 60 days off before her recent retirement.

Parnell acknowledged that the rules are in the master contract, "if you look."

But people don't understand, she said, that "when you are sick, even making a simple phone call ... feels so overwhelming."

"Unless a person has been through this, they don't even know how hard it is to get a doctor to fill out the form," said Parnell, who has two forms of cancer and four spinal fractures. "It really is a difficult process, and when there are so many things you don't know, it makes the process doubly difficult."

Questions abound, she said, ranging from a working definition for "catastrophic illness" to having details about state-funded disability retirement if you qualify.

Aim to treat all equally

The United School Employees of Pasco offers help to workers seeking to navigate through the system, which operates almost identically to the one Pinellas schools run.

But even with the latest case stoking community upset, the employee association is not looking to change the program.

"The bank works fairly well," said Jim Ciadella, lead contract negotiator for the teachers.

Some seemingly egregious cases crop up from time to time, he said. But the committee strives to be fair and follow the rules so that everyone is treated similarly.

School Board member Kathryn Starkey called Duffy's situation "heart-wrenching," and said she would like to see what options the board has to intervene on the teacher's behalf.

"I hope we find there is something we can do," she said.

After conferring with board lawyer Dennis Alfonso, Starkey wasn't hopeful. The law allows family members who are both employed by the district to transfer sick time to one another. But there's no vehicle for friends to do the same.

The district contract also has no mechanism to let employees cash in unused sick days before their retirement or resignation, so they can't get the money for a day and give it to another teacher either.

Without a change to state law or the district contract, then the only real recourse is through the sick leave bank committee.

"If the teachers aren't happy with their committee, they need to do something about it," Starkey suggested.

Board member Cathi Martin has said she intends to bring this matter to her colleagues for discussion when they meet April 21. Fiorentino said she will have plenty of material available.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at solochek@sptimes.com or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.

Pasco County schools sick bank rules make it hard to aid ill teacher 04/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, April 13, 2009 8:52pm]
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