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story.lead_photo.caption FILE — Little Rock School District headquarters are shown in this 2019 file photo. - Photo by Gavin Lesnick

A total of 378 Little Rock School District teachers called in sick to work early Monday, causing administrative leaders to draw substitutes from elsewhere in the district's ranks, from its WillSub System vendor and from the Arkansas Department of Education to keep the schools open.

The district has about 1,800 teachers. A typical number of teacher absences in February was about 95 a day, said Jordan Eason, the district's employee relations specialist.

While 21% of teachers were absent Monday, about 14% of district students were absent, 3,114 of the 23,016 enrolled.

Higher-than-average numbers of teacher absences were most evident at 11 of the district's more than 40 campuses, district leaders told parents via the district's website and other online avenues about 7:30 a.m. Monday.

The 11 schools were Central, Parkview Magnet and J.A. Fair high schools; Mabelvale, Horace Mann, Henderson and Cloverdale middle schools; and Booker Magnet, Williams Magnet, Meadowcliff and Otter Creek elementaries.

Later Monday, the district reported that vacant positions were covered with 173 WillSub substitutes and 30 employee volunteers from the Arkansas Department of Education's Division of Elementary and Secondary Education. The remaining empty slots were covered by Little Rock district employees, including central office administrators and building level specialty staff. In some cases, classes of students were combined in order to provide necessary adult supervision.

The high volume of employee sick calls comes not only during cold and flu season, but also at a time when the state-controlled Little Rock district and the state remain at odds with the Little Rock Education Association employee union and some community members over recent state Board of Education decisions.

Those state decisions include delaying an election of a new Little Rock School Board until November and putting restrictions on board powers. Also at issue is a state Education Board vote that ended collective bargaining for employee contracts and the Education Board's decision against renewing contracts for staff at four schools if they don't find other district jobs by the end of April. Three of those schools are closing and one is being converted to a magnet school.

The employee association, which conducted a one-day strike on Nov. 14, 2019, gave no official confirmation Monday that it orchestrated the day's high volume of employee absences -- just as there was no confirmation from the association when more than 250 employees called in sick last month.

Those sick-to-work calls in February resulted in the Little Rock district closing all district schools for two days, Feb. 10-11, to allow for illness recovery and sanitizing classrooms.

Any declared job action by the district's employees could trigger the district's previously announced plan to raise the pay of substitute teachers to that of a beginning teacher, effective on the second day of a job action.

UNION LEADER COMMENTS

Teresa Knapp Gordon, president of the Little Rock Education Association, issued a statement Monday afternoon noting that there are serious outbreaks of influenza and strep circulating in the schools.

She said the association has no information about the the health issues among its individual members "but we know that our members take their responsibility as educators very seriously. LRSD educators are committed to doing everything we can to mitigate the spread of any illness in our schools."

"LREA would love to be able to tell you that flu and strep are the only illnesses that are flourishing in LRSD," Gordon also wrote. "However, we know that the confirmed ongoing infection of the privatization agenda pushed by the Governor and his billionaire buddies in LRSD continues to flourish, and this infection robs our students of the funding and resources they need in order to thrive."

Association members and some community members have long complained that charter-school support by state education leaders and the Walton Family Foundation of Bentonville takes resources from the traditional district.

Gordon also said that the members of the Board of Education, some of whom have ties to some of the state's largest business enterprises and to the governor's office, are "causing constant undue stress and chaos through their numerous tainted decisions."

State Education Board members are appointed to seven-year terms by the governor.

"We know that if the state board truly cared about the education of our students, they would allow the educators in our district to have a voice in the education of our students while treating them as true partners instead of disposable capital resources," Gordon said.

Arkansas Education Secretary Johnny Key, who acts in place of a school board in the state-controlled school district, said Monday evening that he appreciated teachers of the district "who are keeping their professional commitment to their students today and every day."

He also said that while the absences "have the appearance of a coordinated effort," the Little Rock district has not confirmed that the absences constitute a work action.

SUPERINTENDENT'S UPDATE

Superintendent Mike Poore reacted to Monday's teacher absences in an update to parents and the general public on district preparations for health challenges and emergencies -- such as the potential spread of the coronavirus, or covid-19, to Little Rock.

"Now is not the time to attempt to make political statements by being absent," Poore asserted in the health preparation update.

"Each day we will monitor absentee rates of both students and staff," he said. "It is critical to have accurate data so that we can make the best decisions for our LRSD community.

"We know we will need to lengthen the school year as a result of the recent flu, and the COVID-19 virus could extend that," Poore said.

The school year is currently scheduled to end May 27 for students but two makeup dates have not yet been announced.

The state Education Board voted to take over the district in January 2015, dismissing the school board and putting the superintendent under state direction. That was because six of the district's then 48 schools had been declared academically distressed by the state for chronically low student test scores.

By law, the Education Board must either release, reconstitute or consolidate a state-controlled district after five years. The board voted late last year to return the district to a locally elected, nine-member board after a November 2020 election. The new board will be prohibited from reinstating union recognition, changing superintendents or initiating lawsuits until such time as the district exits the Level 5/intensive support level of the state's accountability system.

In addition to the statement issued Monday afternoon, the association leadership posted on its LREA -Every Student Every Day Facebook page late Sunday the district's policy/protocol for calling in sick to the district.

The social media post cited the district's Policy 3.7 and language from the 2018-19 Professional Negotiated Agreement between the district and association that says an employee is entitled to sick leave for reasons of personal or family illness, medical appointments or bereavement.

The requirements call for sick leave notice to be given by the employee at least two hours before the start of the work day. That notice must go both to the substitute employee system and to the school building administrator.

A Section on 03/03/2020

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