Some St. Paul teachers use medical leave to call timeout from scrutiny

/ 4 June 2012 / jennifer

Mila Koumpilova, Pioneer Press, June 4, 2012 –

“I just want to get back to work,” says Marina Hammond of Minneapolis, a St. Paul teacher who is on medical leave because of anxiety caused in part by a performance-improvement plan. (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)

For St. Paul third-grade teacher Carla Renz, last fall brought insomnia and panic attacks. For the first time in her 11 years with the district, a principal scrutinized and questioned her performance.

Still, said the Heights Community School teacher, the advice of the union representative she sought out took her aback: Go on medical leave.

“I am not sick,” Renz said. “I would never qualify for a medical leave.”

“Sure you would,” the union rep said, according to Renz. “People take them all the time.”

Before dipping in the current school year, the number of employees taking unpaid medical leaves in the 38,000-student St. Paul district rose steadily over the previous five years, even as its workforce shrunk. Officials are at a loss to explain the increase — or a recent spike in disability insurance claims that pushed up premiums.

A host of factors are likely at play, from the aging of baby-boomer employees to the wider use of parental leave.

But some district educators described the leaves as a safe haven from the stress and career consequences of stepped-up performance evaluations in recent years. A few said they chose that option at the suggestion of their union. The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, though, says it would not steer members toward medical leaves.

Cases such as Renz’s likely account for a small fraction of district leaves, and it is hard to say what part they might have played in the overall increase. Still, they raise questions about the evaluation process in Minnesota’s second-largest school district — all the more pressing now as the state gears up for mandatory, high-stakes evaluations of all its teachers and principals by 2014.


In 2007-08, 363 teachers, administrators and other St. Paul staffers took at least one leave, district records show. After steady increases each following year, about 513 of almost 8,000 employees went on medical leave last school year.

The portion of parental leaves remained relatively steady, at about 35 percent. The district is on track to see an overall decrease in leaves in the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

The increase in leaves has not sounded alarms among district administrators. Employees are eligible for unpaid leave under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act and, in some cases, additional leave spelled out in contract provisions.

In a 2008 survey of 85 districts, the Minnesota School Boards Association found a 27 percent increase in days that educators spent on leave — medical, parental and other types — compared with two years earlier. And the association finds itself fielding more questions about medical leaves from districts, which report a spike in mental-health-related leave requests.

Marina Hammond, an elementary computer-technology teacher and 18-year veteran of the St. Paul school district, went on medical leave earlier this year after a panic attack she says was caused by the stress of a performance-improvement plan she was placed on. She is pictured at her Minneapolis home. “It’s such a waste of experienced teachers who want to work,” Hammond says of being on leave. “I would much rather be working.” (Pioneer Press: Richard Marshall)

To John Sylvester, the association’s deputy executive director, that comes as no surprise: Minnesota teachers have faced growing class sizes, a harsher public opinion of their profession — and ever-higher expectations.

“Teachers are experiencing more stress than they ever have,” he said.

The pressure is certainly on in St. Paul.

Student test scores with teachers’ names are on display in classrooms, hallways and principals’ offices. Principals spend more time than ever observing teachers — a record 7,000 classroom observations last year.

These steps are key to the district’s Strong Schools, Strong Communities plan for raising achievement, said school board Chairwoman Jean O’Connell.

The teachers union has been recognized for its engagement with the district’s evaluation process. Educators new to St. Paul schools and, increasingly, tenured teachers on informal improvement plans get guidance from a trained colleague.

But once a teacher is placed on a formal improvement plan, union business agent Paul Rohlfing told online news site MinnPost last year, he starts discussing exit options: One is resignation, which lets some district veterans keep retirement health benefits they would lose if they are fired; another is medical leave.


Despite balking at the idea at first, Renz went on medical leave and qualified for long-term disability coverage. After weeks of frequent classroom observations and a letter in her personnel file saying she did not follow the district’s curriculum closely enough, she was ready for a timeout.

“It’s a trauma when someone comes in and pulls your career away from you in a matter of hours,” she said.

Besides, if she landed in a formal improvement plan, she may not be able to transfer to another school; the leave left that possibility open.

A colleague at Heights Community School, Beverly Hanson, also opted for a medical leave to pre-empt a formal improvement plan. Leslie Greaves Radloff, the school librarian, did so after struggling to handle the pressure of her 21-step formal plan.

The three teachers said their union rep told each of them that if their physicians would not sign off on the medical leave paperwork, the union could refer them to a doctor who would.

Current and former teachers at five St. Paul schools interviewed for this report said they took medical leaves at some stage in the performance-improvement process. Some said the formal improvement plans are commonly known among educators as termination plans — a route to ousting teachers that prescribes dozens of performance changes to make in short order.

Because district principals are not required to formally evaluate all teachers, those they zero in on for improvement — often longtime educators who have not been evaluated for years — can feel singled out. Some say the plans appear to target the most veteran, and highest-paid, educators — a charge that the district denies and that the union said is not supported definitively by data it compiles.

The three Heights teachers have filed an age-discrimination complaint against the district with the Minnesota Department of Human Rights.

The teachers union first saw the leaves as a way to protect members the district was trying to force out about five years ago, according to a former union building steward who asked to remain anonymous.

Going on leave would protect members’ benefits if they were close to retirement or allow them to transfer to a different school, the former steward said. The district, on the other hand, would not have to go through the time-consuming and expensive arbitration process should the employee challenge a termination.

“It was a situation of convenience for both the district and the union,” the former steward said. “People had questions about the legitimacy of this strategy, but nobody talked about it.”

Union leaders said reps would not suggest a medical leave without an indication that a member is seriously ill. Mary Cathryn Ricker, the Federation of Teachers president, rejected the idea of the leaves as a union strategy and said the union does not refer members to a physician.

She noted that the number of formal improvement plans is down this year, even as classroom observations have picked up.

“The process in St. Paul really is about making teachers stronger,” Ricker said.


Educators said going on medical leave amid district performance scrutiny was justified.

Marina Hammond, an 18-year district veteran, found herself struggling for the first time this year when her school, American Indian Magnet, added the seventh grade. An elementary computer-technology educator, she was asked to take on a seventh-grade classroom.

With no experience or training teaching adolescents, she felt overwhelmed by the discipline problems in her class. She said she was placed on an improvement plan after a 30-minute observation with her seventh-graders.

The coach the union assigned to Hammond was helpful, she said, but that fellow teacher support did not dispel the anxiety and insomnia she suffered as she saw her career on the line. After an April panic attack in her classroom, she decided to go on leave, with no input from the union.

Still, she and others described deep displeasure about resorting to that option.

“It’s such a waste of experienced teachers who want to work,” Hammond said. “I would much rather be working.”

Former Eastern Heights Elementary special-education teacher Charles Worthington took a yearlong medical leave in 2008 at the advice of his union representative. He’d spent the previous spring on an improvement plan.

“I didn’t want to do this,” said Worthington, who retired at the end of that year. “I was in good health. I wanted to teach a few more years at least, but I couldn’t imagine going back.”

Though most leaves are unpaid, district employees can bank sick days indefinitely and use them while on leave. After three decades with the district, Worthington had accrued 200 sick days.

In some cases, teachers can qualify for short- or long-term disability coverage the district provides. Last year, the district’s long-term disability provider, the Hartford, flagged St. Paul for a spike in claims and raised premiums by more than 50 percent.

But the key repercussion of a leave increase, said Sylvester of the Minnesota School Boards Association, is the disruption from mid-year teacher departures, which studies have linked to drops in student achievement.


Tim Caskey, the district’s human-resources director, said he does not know why leaves have increased in recent years. He has heard through the grapevine that the teachers union occasionally advises members to go on medical leave. But he said he can’t do much when employees present the required physician’s certificate.

“We have to accept what we hear from the physician,” he said. “We can’t go in and say, ‘Really?’ ”

Experts such as Minneapolis employment attorney Carl Crosby Lehmann said 12-week leave requests under the Family and Medical Leave Act can be cumbersome to challenge, and the bar for employees to qualify is set fairly low.

The St. Paul district said this spring that its hands were similarly tied when a Heights teacher involved in a district investigation resigned — effective after a 24-week paid medical leave. Because of the pending resignation, the district said, it could not complete the investigation into parents’ allegations that he discriminated against black students in his class.

But Rep. Mindy Greiling, DFL-Roseville, the retiring longtime education leader in the Minnesota House, said the medical leaves should trigger some soul-searching in the district.

If a teacher is truly underperforming, Greiling said, she would rather see that teacher go on unpaid leave than remain in the classroom. But if teachers are taking leaves to dodge or flee improvement plans, might these plans feel too threatening or punitive?

And, she asks, if teachers are ending up on these plans decades into their careers, where were their supervisors all these years?

“To me, that’s a sign of too little, too late,” Greiling said.

Sylvester has mixed feelings, too. On one hand, leaves should be an option for today’s increasingly harried educators. But if they are seen as a way to block performance-improvement efforts, he said: “That’s a problem. That’s a huge problem.”

He said that prospect is “scary” in light of mandatory evaluations of teachers and principals that will go into effect statewide by 2014. Though the process is still a work in progress, the idea is that these evaluations will guide district employment decisions.

“That’s bound to be terribly stressful,” Sylvester said. “Is a medical leave at that point legitimate?”

MaryJo Webster contributed to this report.

Mila Koumpilova can be reached at 651-228-2171. Follow her at