Teacher absences on the rise in Anoka-Hennepin

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

The number of days Anoka-Hennepin’s 2,775 teachers spend outside of the classroom is growing.

Teacher absences have climbed 16 percent in the last four years with 42,505 absences during the 2016-2017 school year. There were nine more absences daily on average in 2016-2017 than there were the previous school year – 246 compared to 237.

Just under two-thirds of teacher absences are taken for personal reasons. In 2016-2017, 27,109 personal absences were recorded. Most personal absences are due to illness.

About one-fourth of absences are taken to attend meetings throughout the district.

Meeting absences declined in 2014-2015, but have continued to rise since that time. This past school year 12,069 absences were recorded because teachers were called away to participate in meetings, up 10 percent the last three years.

“We are working to reduce the number of meetings we hold on various days,” said Sarah Kriewall, director of employee services, during a presentation to the School Board June 12.

But Board Member Jeff Simon wondered why more progress hasn’t been made.

A number of meetings were unavoidable this past year, according to Superintendent David Law.

“We did significant training for the Wonders adoption last year,” Law said, referring to new Reading Wonders literacy curriculum in elementary schools.

Additionally, studying secondary math curriculum and instruction – a strategic investment set by the School Board – and the yearlong special education audit necessitated additional meetings, he said.

As absences increase, the district has seen its substitute pool decrease, adversely affecting its fill rate, which sits between 90 and 95 percent.

The substitute pool was down 31 substitute teachers from the previous year with 513 substitute teachers in 2016-2017. It’s still an improvement over 2014-2015 when the pool dipped below 500 to 485.

“We’re seeing an improvement economy,” which means Anoka-Hennepin needs to ensure they are identified by substitutes as an “employer of choice,” Kriewall said.

An annual substitute survey, started three years ago, helps the district do that.

This year’s survey, distributed in May, shows interaction with students is what substitutes enjoy most. More than 96 percent of 401 respondents felt welcome and appreciated and found other employees to be supportive. Substitutes surveyed most often cited improved pay and benefits and more detailed lesson plans as ways the district could improve their experience subbing.

Kriewall cited the annual survey, job fair (the third annual fair is slated to occur Aug. 3), ongoing discussions with principals and training opportunities as part of the continuous improvement process. Next steps are creating networking opportunities for substitutes, reducing districtwide meetings and expanding staff development opportunities for substitutes.

“It just seems soft,” School Board Chairperson Tom Heidemann said, noting that substitutes haven’t asked for networking. “I don’t think we’ve really got a clear plan.”

He would like to focus on the fill rate and discover what is driving absences as a first step in reducing those, he said.

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