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An uptick in paid holidays for 12-month APS employees rankles School Board watchdog and some teachers

The Arlington Public Schools Syphax Education Center (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

School Board watchdog group Arlington Parents for Education (APE) is asking the auditor for Arlington Public Schools to dive into the potential impacts of an increase in paid holidays for year-round staff.

Two school years ago, new religious and cultural holidays were added to the calendar and Supt. Francisco Durán announced APS would fully close for winter and spring breaks. APE said in a new letter to the auditor that this decision could cost millions and may hurt morale of 10-month employees, who are not paid for these days off.

The letter, signed by APE Board members Alison Babb, Sheila Kelly, Sheila Leonard, Amy Rzepka and Katie Sunderland, concludes as follows:

We believe there is a strong rationale for either the School Board to add this to the work plan or for the auditor to initiate this audit. APS policy states that the internal auditor ‘shall prioritize’ audits based on risk to the division, and compliance with School Board policies, among other factors. This practice of providing 12-month staff with 26-32 paid holidays is now inconsistent with APS’ holiday policy, which still technically provides for only 13 paid holidays. Additionally, there is ample evidence… that this practice is adversely impacting APS operations and therefore presents a risk to the division.

The two changes made in 2021, by APE’s count, increased paid holidays that 12-month employees have from 13 to at least 26. Pointing to a 2020 estimate that furloughing 12-month staff for one day could save APS some $300,000, the board members say the additional paid holidays could cost $6 million annually. They do note, however, that APS has elsewhere said there is no financial cost to the changes in days off.

APS tells ARLnow the School Board decides what the auditor will take up and disputes APE’s holiday math. Over the last two years, not including annual leave, 12-month staff worked on average 234 days and received between 12-15 days off while 10-month staff worked an average of 189 days and have received 11 days off, per school system spokesman Frank Bellavia.

Arlington School Administrators, or ASA, the bargaining unit for principals, assistant principals, supervisors and some directors, likewise says the gains in paid holidays have been modest. Administrators gave up six days of annual leave in exchange for the spring and winter breaks, as part of collective bargaining negotiations last fiscal year, says Susan Robinson, who was the executive director of ASA for 13 years, overseeing the negotiations in question before stepping down recently.

APE contends that APS should have publicly discussed whether it would be fully operationally closed during winter and spring break before these were extended to 12-month staff. Durán at the time said the change did not require School Board approval because it involved “non-student days.”

“The decision to close during winter and spring breaks came out of Covid and aligns with some of our neighboring jurisdictions wherein 12-month employees are granted time off during these time periods,” Bellavia said. “Over the last two fiscal years, APS has communicated to stakeholders that offices and schools would be closed during these time periods.”

Although they may be off, ASA members must monitor emails and respond to any urgent matters, Bellavia noted.

Deborah Waldron, a Yorktown High School physics teacher, has spoken at several School Board meetings over the last two years about the inequity of increasing paid leave for 12-month staff. One result is that teachers have fewer free moments to address insurance changes or pay issues when APS headquarters is closed.

In the last weeks of 2023, when employees were trying to remedy mistakes made during the rush to enroll in new health insurance this fall and winter, “there was no one to call,” Waldron said.

(Leading up to the change — which took teachers and Kaiser by surprise — APS did offer a day of leave to teachers to find new providers and also organized informational sessions and a resource fair that drew out so many attendees some were sent away.)

Waldron also said it became more complicated to fix a pay issue teachers identified in December 2022 because Human Resources had winter break off and could not address the issue until they returned in January.

APS says it is not aware of issues or concerns like this one.

“We understand emergencies occur and essential employees have been on call to respond to emergent matters during these time periods over the last two fiscal years,” Bellavia said. “During the winter break, staff from the Department of Human Resources — Divisions of Benefits and Payroll, as well as staff from the Departments of Facilities and Operations and Information Services, responded to routine and emergent matters.”

Waldron first spoke out after Durán decided in November 2021 to give the entire winter break off for 12-month staff.

“It rubbed everybody the wrong way,” she said. “That was a lot of days off he was gifting to 12-month and not to 10-month employees… It doesn’t make sense to have a 2-tiered system.”

In their respective contracts, 12-month staff are contracted to work non-student days while 10-month staff are not, which is why they are not paid for these days. Bellavia said that, starting next year, 10-month employees, including teachers who work 200-day contracts, will be granted seven paid days that they do not work.

Waldron says she has gotten support from colleagues who are frustrated over the difference in treatment.

“I get lots of people telling me, ‘Thank you for speaking out. Thank you for your words. We agree with you,'” she said. “I might be the only person speaking out about it but there are others trying to bring light to this issue.”

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