The state Public Education Department’s new requirement for attendance to be factored into teachers’ performance evaluations has taken Santa Fe Public Schools and other districts by surprise.

In previous years, the state gave districts the option of choosing either teacher attendance records or parent and student surveys to make up 10 percent of an evaluation. But Public Education Secretary Hanna Skandera said this week that the state has moved to a “more uniform” evaluation system, and is now requiring both attendance information and surveys from all educators. The state has said that including attendance in performance reviews helps reduce teacher absences, which saves money for districts and increases students’ learning time.

The Public Education Department sent out a memo to school officials in January detailing the change and issued a second notice in August. Still, the leaders of at least two local districts — Santa Fe and Los Alamos — were caught off guard by the news and said they were concerned about how it will affect teachers.

“I imagine teachers will not be happy about this,” Santa Fe Superintendent Veronica García said Tuesday, adding that she doesn’t want teachers to come to work sick because they fear it could affect their evaluations. “I don’t see how a teacher who is ill in school can provide optimum instruction,” she said. “It’s not healthy for anyone to be at school with the flu.”

Several teachers and board members who attended a recent meeting in Los Alamos echoed that thought. Los Alamos Public Schools Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus said he learned about the new rules during a conference call with Skandera about a month ago. He said he also talked to a colleague in the Ruidoso school district who was thrown by the change.

García, who just stepped into the Santa Fe district’s top job in August, said she saw the department’s memo for the first time this week, and that may be largely because of the district’s leadership transition. She found some of the language in the memo unclear. For example, it says that effective this calendar year, 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation will be made up of “teacher attendance and-or surveys.”

García and Steinhaus both said they thought that meant they still could choose between the two options.

Public Education Department spokesman Robert McEntyre clarified the new requirements Tuesday, saying districts that haven’t been weighing teacher attendance must now count that measure for 5 percent of an evaluation. Districts that were using only attendance must add parent or student surveys as part of their reviews. McEntyre said teachers can miss up to three days of work without being penalized.

The new guidelines also do not dock teachers for absences covered by the federal Family and Medical Leave Act, or absences because of military duty, jury duty, bereavement, religious leave or professional development programs.

McEntyre defended the state department’s decision to make the change to its teacher evaluations, saying in an email, “Our students learn more and learn best when they have their qualified, professional teacher in the classroom. … Since attendance was first included in teacher evaluations, it’s estimated that New Mexico schools are collectively saving $3.5 million in costs for substitute teachers and adding 300,000 hours of instructional time back into our classrooms.”

García said she asked Skandera to discuss the changes with her and to send out an updated memo, and Skandera has agreed to do so.

With teachers already some 10 weeks into the school year, many local educators are likely to have missed three days by now, if not more.

A review in recent years showed Santa Fe teachers were absent an average of 17 workdays in a school year, compared to a national average of nine days at the time. Then-Superintendent Joel Boyd called the findings of the October 2012 report “startling.” The district hasn’t conducted a districtwide review of teacher attendance since then.

Teacher absenteeism has gained attention nationwide as schools have struggled to close achievement gaps. A report issued in 2014 by the National Council on Teacher Quality said teachers in big-city schools around the country missed an average of 11 days of work per year — a statistic driven in large part by chronic absenteeism among about 16 percent of the teachers surveyed.

Grace Mayer, a teacher at De Vargas Middle School who serves as the president of the local teachers union, NEA-Santa Fe, did not respond to a phone call seeking comment for this story.

García said Santa Fe Public Schools will adjust to the change. “The [attendance] weighting is just five percent,” she said, “so it seems like it is a compromise, I guess. It is what it is.”

Contact Robert Nott at 505-986-3021 or rnott@sfnewmexican.com.

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