Board finds needed $2 million in estimated teacher sick leave

By Roderick Benns

TLDSB Director of Education Larry Hope has reached out to local unions for support.

As the Trillium Lakelands District School Board grapples with a $2 million funding shortfall in expected revenues, it found the solution in decreasing the amount of money it is allocating for teacher sick leave.

Director of Education Larry Hope just hopes it wasn’t a one-time solution, and so has reached out to the local union presidents for support.

Hope says the way the Education Act reads is that a school board is allowed to draw on reserves up to one per cent of the board’s overall budget – and for TLDSB that’s about $2 million.

Historically, he notes the board has deliberately set out to use some of their reserves to support students in classrooms, to provide learning opportunities, support staff, and more. A deficit of about two per cent typically helped with this. This year, with the election of the new Progressive Conservative government led by Doug Ford, “we did not get the approval we are used to,” says Hope.

When they went looking where to find that $2 million, the board did not want to impact student learning, so they looked at the amount of money that was estimated for teacher sick leave. Sick leave has been on the rise, especially, since 2012, when the practice of being able to bank sick days was ended. (It’s a complicated formula of changes that were made at the time; about 40 per cent of school boards had a policy where these could be paid out at retirement, according to TVO.)

“We can’t seem to accurately predict that number each year,” says Hope, in terms of knowing how many sick leave days will be taken.

He says they have let the unions know the situation “to try and work with them to deal with absenteeism, whether that’s through wellness program” or other solutions.

“That way we didn’t affect programming.”

Karen Bratina, president Trillium Lakelands Elementary Teacher Local (ETFO), says “there’s no question the board is facing more absenteeism than in the past.”

“One of the reasons for that could be that our gratuities were taken away in 2012. Teachers who perhaps were sick in the past aren’t dragging themselves to work anymore,” she tells the Advocate.

Bratina, who represents about 650 permanent teachers in the board’s catchment area, says the classroom dynamic has also “changed dramatically.”

“Our society has changed. We have many students with special needs, suffering from mental health issues. Our teachers are not equipped,” she says.

The union president welcomes the support from the board on wellness initiatives and says she hopes that support will not only be given to students, but teachers too.

“From a local perspective, most of the absences we’ve seen are a direct result of mental health issues for teachers.”

Bratina notes there is an “unprecedented” number of teachers on long term disability (LTD) in TLDSB.

“We are one of the highest in the province for LTD claims. We need to work together so we can support each other better. It’s not an easy solution,” Bratina admits.

She says the quick fix isn’t more Education Assistants. “It’s more than that. Teachers need to be understood when they’re not well.”

As for Hope, he says the unions and the board “have a very good relationship based on problem solving and respect.”

However, he cautions that it’s possible all the board has done with this latest move is to “find a one time solution.”

“But if we don’t have a long term solution to sick leave costs,” he says, “the government is going to have to step in to help us or else we will have to make uncomfortable decisions.”

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