The Hawaii Board of Education wanted more than it got Tuesday from school officials.

Board members were concerned after reading startling statistics on high teacher absenteeism and turnover rates in a local newspaper article and on the teachers union website. The paper reported that teachers are out sick an average of 17 days a year, and the union said half of all new hires leave within the five years.

Those are numbers that the board wanted to get to the bottom of and see what could be done to improve the rates. Studies link high teacher absenteeism with low student achievement. And when teachers are out sick, the district has to hire substitutes, as board chairman Don Horner noted.

But the numbers aren’t as solid or as simple as they’ve been portrayed, Hawaii Department of Education officials say.

Absenteeism

Teachers do indeed miss 17 days each year on average, school officials said. But it’s not all sick leave; that number represents the average number of all absences per teacher, said Diana Niles-Hansen, senior director of the DOE’s Office of Human Resources.

Teachers are actually sick only about six days a year, she said.

But teachers — who get 18 sick days a year plus other paid time off — use their sick leave for many reasons, especially professional development, said Kerry Tom, director of the DOE’s Personnel Management Branch.

The data presented to the board’s Human Resources Committee, chaired by Jim Williams, makes it possible to figure out how many teachers take 10 days or more of sick leave each year. More than one-fourth of the department’s 13,000 teachers annually take 10 or more sick days, which again includes professional development days and other paid time off that falls under sick leave.

But the data didn’t provide, for instance, the total number of sick days that teachers take, which would make it possible to determine how much sick leave each teacher takes on average.

Williams asked Tom and Hansen to provide data that also includes subtotals by complex area, overall totals and breakouts for maternity and personal leave.

“Before we get into whether our rates are high or not and whether any changes need to be made we need to make sure we have a handle on the data,” Williams said.

Board Chair Don Horner was also concerned.

“This isn’t about ‘I got you,’” he said. “But there may be some underlying systemic challenges that we need to address.”

In particular, Horner said the data will help the board examine student achievement and cost.

Board member Kim Gennaula said the bigger issue is whether the district is comfortable with teachers taking off 15 to 25 days a year, if that’s indeed happening, regardless of whether it’s for time when teachers are actually sick or if it’s for professional development.

Turnover

When it comes to teacher turnover, district officials concur that Hawaii does have a problem. Roughly 50 percent of new teachers leave the district within their first five years of employment, the state’s own numbers show.

Of the 1,591 new teachers hired in 2006, only 715 are still active. The following year, 1,465 teachers were hired but just 691 are still active.

The data shows that 20 percent of the teachers hired in 2011 have already left. Fifty-five percent of the teacher class of 2006 are gone.

Board members say they need to focus on those critical first five years of employment.

Although Tom noted that teachers leave for a variety of reasons — moving, high cost of living, child care — board members said it’s alarming either way.

The board wants the department to try to figure out more clearly why teachers are leaving. Now they fill out a form when they leave but the department doesn’t correlate the data with hiring information.

For instance, the department was able to tell the board what the leading cause of departure was, but not how many teachers in the past year left for that reason.

The board also wants the district to improve its exit interviews. They said teachers should be doing one-on-one interviews with their principal or supervisor so the district can learn more about why they are leaving.

Williams said doing these exit interviews is included in the department’s strategic plan.

“It is our policy,” he said. “It’s not our practice today.”

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