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Drill, baby, drill

As today's story on teacher and administrator attendance notes, the Buffalo Public Schools recently released a report whose bottom line, City Hall administrators say, is this: teachers and principals need to be in school more.

On the average, more than 10 percent of district employees are absent on a given day, the study found. The major focus was on teachers. When a teacher misses more days in the classroom, so does his or her students, the study found. And the more days of school a teacher misses, the worse that teacher's students are likely to do in math and English.

Mark W. Frazier, a top administrator and one of the study's authors, said the district for the first time was able to use data to "move past hunches," and drill down from the district level to the school level to see how many days employees were taking off, and for what reasons: sick time, personal days, staff development, student suspension hearings, etc.

In the voluminous additional data the district provided to The Buffalo News, attendance is broken down at the building level; it's clear that some schools appear to have a much bigger attendance problem than others. It would seem that if the district wants to ferret out employee abuse of time off, administrators need to focus on sick time, which is the type of benefit time most difficult for the district to police. City Hall has the right to deny employee requests for personal days and vacation days (which are only given to administrators, who work year-round).

At any workplace -- especially one as big as the Buffalo Public Schools, which employs nearly 4,000 teachers -- it's likely you'll find some people abusing their sick time. Even Crystal Barton, president of the administrators union and longtime principal of McKinley High School, said: "Do I have somebody who's absent every Monday or every Friday? Then that may be a pattern, and we should look at that. Show me the one who has a problem -- someone is actually taking advantage of a situation."

The trouble is, the district hasn't drilled down its data enough to paint a good picture of how many bad apples are floating in the barrel.

It's just not as simple as running the total number of sick days used in each school. Frazier said the district is not out to punish people with genuine medical problems. As he pointed out, "Each building has its own story. There might be four people out on maternity leave in one school." Finding instances of abuse would require the district to drill down the data further, to filter out people who are out for documented long-term medical situations. Including them in the data pool only makes it murkier.

Beyond that, Superintendent James A. Williams has said that the district has found patterns of increased absenteeism on days before and after holidays, as well as on Mondays and Fridays. 

City Hall does have district-wide data on absences before and after holidays -- but just total absences, as opposed to a further breakdown that would determine how many of those absences are sick days, as opposed to personal days, which the district has the authority to deny, or any other reason. And the district apparently has not done any actual data analysis yet to look for patterns among days of the week -- administrators said so when The News requested it -- so at this point, we don't know how good Williams' hunch is.

Seems like maybe the district ought to keep drilling.

-- Mary Pasciak

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About School Zone

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee

Denise Jewell Gee joined The Buffalo News in 2007 and currently covers education and suburban schools. She also writes a column for the City & Region section and previously covered government in Erie County and Niagara Falls. Gee graduated from Boston University with degrees in journalism and political science.

@denisejewellgee |

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes

Tiffany Lankes joined The Buffalo News in 2013 and primarily covers the Buffalo Public Schools. She has written about education since 2003 at newspapers in Florida and New York. In 2008, she was a nominated finalist for The Pulitzer Prize. Lankes is an Amherst native and graduate of Sacred Heart Academy and Syracuse University. She started her journalism career writing for the News’ NeXt section.

@TiffanyLankes |

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan

Sandra Tan has been a cityside reporter for The Buffalo News since 2000 and currently covers the Buffalo Public Schools beat. She previously covered the Williamsville school district and was a full-time education reporter for five years prior to joining The News. She graduated from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

@BNschoolzone |

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams

Deidre Williams began working for The Buffalo News in 1999 and currently covers Buffalo Public Schools. She formerly was a suburban reporter on the Northtowns beat and has been a cityside reporter covering communities since 2004. Williams has a mass communications degree from Towson University.

@DeidreWilliamsB |