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High Absentee Rate Cited Among Philadelphia's Teachers

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The rate of absences among Philadelphia schoolteachers is nearly twice that in other urban school systems, according to a study released recently by a Philadelphia-area citizens' watchdog group.

Comparing figures provided by the School District of Philadelphia with those of a recent national survey of absenteeism among school personnel, the Council for Educational Priorities found that 13,300 Philadelphia teachers missed an average of 16.8 days of work during the 1980-81 school year, compared to 8.9 days missed by teachers in other city school districts.

Support-Staff Members

The three-year-old, nonprofit organization also found that Philadelphia support-staff members--cafeteria workers, custodians, secretaries--missed an average of 20.82 days in 1980-81, compared with an average of 10 days for support staff in other urban school districts that participated in a national survey conducted last year by the Educational Research Service, a research organization supported by school administrators.

Again using Philadelphia school-system figures, the council found that in 1980-81 the district spent nearly $16 million to hire substitutes to replace absent teachers, an amount equal to the salaries of 687 full-time teachers paid at the rate of $23,000 per year.

The cost of substitutes was $87,782 a day or $70 for each of the district's 224,000 students, according to the study.

"The problem is out of control," said Debra S. Weiner, executive director of the council and principal author of the study. "Kids pay a very large price in the disruption of educational continuity. And tax-paying parents pay a high price in substitute costs."

One major cause mentioned in the study for the high absenteeism rate among the school system's employees is a contract agreement that gives school employees paid leave for 32 separate reasons--including the graduation of a son or daughter from junior high school--in addition to 10 days of sick leave and three days of personal leave.

Another is an insurance policy, also won through collective bargaining, that pays teachers 75 percent of their gross salary for up to one year's absence. The study cites a recent investigation by the school district and the insurance carrier, Equitable Life, which found employees being paid under the long-term disability plan working as taxi-cab drivers and attending law school as full-time students.

Ms. Weiner also said administrators have failed to discipline teachers with poor attendance records. "There is a pervasive belief that no one really cares," she said.

Representatives of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers--which represents virtually all of the school system's teachers--were unavailable to comment on the study last week.

But Carole Phillips, secretary of the union, said in an interview with Ms. Weiner that was included in the report, that working conditions--including lack of building security, heating and maintenance problems, disruptive students, large class sizes, and a lack of community support were major factors contributing to the high absenteeism rates among the city's teachers.

Severity of Problem Acknowledged

A spokesman for the Philadelphia school system acknowledged the severity of the absenteeism problem and attributed it to a failure of principals to adequately discipline teachers who abuse the district's leave policy and liberal leave provisions built into the district's collective-bargaining agreement.

The report makes several recommendations for solving the city's absenteeism problem, including making attendance a criterion for evaluating the job performance of all employees, stricter disciplinary action against employees who abuse established leave policies, and a drastic reduction in the types of district-funded paid absences.

A committee on absenteeism made up of administrators, teachers, support staff, and citizens was formed last fall and is expected to make recommendations to the Philadelphia school board by next September. The recommendations will include a plan to use computers to track employee-absenteeism patterns.

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