School board pegs March 5 for superintendent announcement, continues debate over teachers’ sick pay policy

By Randi B. Hagi, contributor

The next superintendent of Harrisonburg City Schools is expected to be named at the school board’s next meeting in two weeks after board members ended their meeting Tuesday in closed session to hash out details of the job’s contract.

“We are targeting March 5 for the announcement” of the new superintendent, said Deb  Fitzgerald, the board’s chairwoman.

The school board selected that meeting, in part, because it’s the next televised meeting, “and we want to do it very publicly,” Fitzgerald told The Citizen. Board members also want to bring the new superintendent on board quickly to review any more proposals from contractors seeking to build the new high school that might come in before the April 1 deadline.

The board spent much of the open portion of Tuesday’s meeting discussing other policies — most notably the issue of changing teachers’ sick leave policy.

The board once again tabled the measure until stakeholders have a chance to weigh in on new alternatives. Specifically, Interim Superintendent Patrick Lintner said he’d organize meetings “in the next couple weeks” for teachers to give input on what, if any, changes they’d support in how their sick leave is handled.

The board began debating earlier this month whether to increase the amount teachers are paid for unused sick days upon retirement.  

School board member Nick Swayne, who expressed concerns about the original proposed changes to the policy, presented a few options Tuesday. Swayne, who is director of the 4-VA Initiative at James Madison University, said that as a JMU employee, he is not granted time off specifically for sick leave. Instead, full-time JMU employees would be covered by an insurance policy for an extended leave of absence because of health reasons.

“I think we should look into something like that,” Swayne said.

A sick leave payout upon retirement is a good deal for those who don’t get sick, but insurance provides benefits for those who do have to miss significant time for health reasons, he said.

Another option, he said, would be to let teachers trade in unused sick leave each year for student loan repayment or professional development and education. The student loan assistance might specifically recruit young teachers, he said.

Fitzgerald said she was concerned that an immediate switch to a new policy might negatively affect long-term employees who have been operating under the rules that have been in place since 1991.

Andrew Ansoorian, City Schools Executive Director of Human Resources, said “you have teachers migrating throughout the state,” all of whom are able to carry over their available sick leave if they move to a new school district.

If Harrisonburg does not honor that reciprocity, “that acts as a disincentive to come here,” Fitzgerald said.

“I like the idea of talking to a variety of teachers,” said school board member Kristen Loflin.

The board voted unanimously to table the policy decision until after those meetings and further discussion have taken place.

Also in the meeting:

  • The school board voted unanimously to adopt changes to the annual leave policy, which placed a cap of 60 days of leave — such as vacation time. But the board raised the cap on payout upon retirement or termination from 25 to 40 unused annual leave days.
  • The school board unanimously approved the calendar for the 2019 – 2020 school year. Classes will begin Aug. 20 and break for the winter holiday from Dec. 23 – Jan. 3, 2020. And the last day of school will be June 5, 2020. The school board tried to align the calendar as closely as possible with Rockingham County schools with whom the city schools have joint programming.

The school board’s next meeting will be March 5 at 7 p.m. in City Council Chambers.

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