TAMPA — When teachers take the day off, Hillsborough schools pay, and not just in lost learning time.
Last year, Hillsborough spent $11-million on substitutes. While that included all employees, absenteeism among Hillsborough's 14,000 instructors made up most of the costs.
Now, school officials are concerned about the heavy use of personal days around holidays, when teacher absenteeism spikes. The list includes Labor Day, Veterans Day, Memorial Day, Easter and Presidents Day.
"You have huge numbers of absences that are not covered, so you have teachers having to cover for other teachers," said Dan Valdez, deputy superintendent for human resources. "That's not comfortable for them."
The district sees not only a way to save money, but also the potential to improve school days around major holidays. Parents know all too well how the last day before vacation can deteriorate into playtime.
But the teachers union wanted to keep personal days unfettered.
"This is not an item that is popular with teachers, nor will it be tolerated by most," said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association. "The whole concept of a personal day is you can use it in place of a sick day for things that you need to do in your life."
In the current round of contract negotiations, the district has backed off an initial demand to limit personal day use. The teachers union has agreed to study absenteeism among teachers and ways to encourage attendance.
In the spring, the district saw how this freedom can spiral out of control. When Hillsborough scheduled classes on Good Friday for the first time in years, one in four teachers took off. Forty percent of bus drivers did, too, resulting in mass cancellations of bus routes.
Good Friday isn't an issue this year because it falls during spring break. But the district remains concerned about other popular holidays.
Rather than imposing restrictions on teachers, the union suggests rewarding those who work on high-absentee days. But talk is about the only thing plentiful in a year when little money on the table.
The teachers union has asked for a 7 percent raise, but the district countered with an offer for zero raises. Other school districts in Florida are laying off teachers.
Items without big price tags are likely to see careful consideration.
Hillsborough teachers are asking to eliminate two instructional days. The district for years has boasted a longer-than-required school year. But now the union wants to return to a 180-day year, without any decrease in teacher salaries.
To get more planning time, teachers also propose an early release day every Wednesday. They want to send students home two hours early. That request is likely to raise eyebrows among parents, but the union says the model has worked for years in Orange County.
No one expects a fast resolution to this year's contract negotiations. And the tight budget picture is one more reason to look at substitute spending.
The $11-million paid to substitutes represents about one-fourth of the budget cuts that Hillsborough has absorbed in the past year. That's money that could be put on the table for other things, including raises.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.