BOISE -- After national numbers and surveys were released showing the amount of time the average teacher spends outside the classroom, KTVB spent months gathering data from districts around southwest and south central Idaho to see where the Gem State stacks up and how much districts spend paying for substitute teachers.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education released nationwide survey results, and subsequently, reports in other states began coming out.
For this report, KTVB specifically looked at how many days' teachers miss each year and the cost of getting substitutes for absent teachers over the last two complete school years. Public records requests went to dozens of districts and 22 responded with at least partial responses.
Nationwide, teachers miss 5.3% of the school year
According to U.S. Department of Education data analyzed by the Center for American Progress, American teachers overall have a 5.3 percent rate of absence. That means the average teacher is out of the classroom for around 5 percent of the school year, which generally figures to be nine or 10 days.
So where does Idaho stand? From calculations using those responses and numbers from the last two full school years, KTVB found Idaho's teachers miss an average of 5.3 percent, the same as the national average.
All of Idaho's districts were right around that average, with no real standout highs or lows. Of those records analyzed by KTVB, the low was in Jerome, where the average teacher missed around 3 percent of the year (around 6 days). The high number appears in Bruneau-Grandview where the average teacher missed more than 7 percent (around 11 days).
Most absences require substitute teachers
The days teacher spend out of the classroom (and are counted absent) could be for a number of reasons, from being out sick, being deployed, being on maternity leave, going to a funeral or even being out for professional development.
According to numbers from school districts, most absences, though not all, required substitutes to come fill in. Sub teachers can cost up to $100 per day or more, depending on agreements with school districts and how long they may be filling in.
Since absences can't be calculated exactly, schools have to be flexible with operational dollars, which are low everywhere.
"It changes. It varies from year to year. We budget. Sometimes we're a little over budget, sometimes we're a little under budget," said Wil Overgaard, Superintendent of Weiser School District.
Unpredictable absences force quick budget changes
In Weiser Schools, there was a 30 percent increase in substitute teacher spending last year, almost $20,000, but it makes sense when you know what happened somewhat unexpectedly.
"Last year we had nine staff members out on family medical leave for maternity leave," Overgaard said. "We had five female teachers that had babies and four male teachers that took advantage of the family medical leave so they could be with their spouses and their new babies. So that was kind of an anomaly for us last year. This year we're on track to spend actually less than either of the two years of data that you have."
In Homedale, there was a huge increase in spending last year at 45 percent, but that district too, had an unexpected long-term teacher absence: A member of the Navy Reserve got deployed and was gone for almost the entire year.
"We're very proud to support our troops, so obviously we wanted to support our teacher who was serving our country, so that's obviously what we would do in that situation every time. But it does create a challenge because that's an unanticipated expense, that we didn't budget for that deployment, and that becomes a hit to the general fund," said Rob Sauer, Superintendent of Homedale School District.
How one district had more teachers out, but spent less on subs
In Middleton, administrators saw substitute teacher costs as something to consider cutting.
"We looked at it from the standpoint of trying to stretch our dollars as far as we could. And our business manager said, would there be a possibility (when we addressed it with our administrators) that we tighten our belt a little bit and see if we can decrease some sub salaries, overall budget salaries to help in another area," said Rich Bauscher, Superintendent of the Middleton School District.
Bauscher says they did things like have administrators fill in as subs and decreased the use of long-term subs, which cost more. They saved $36,000 in one year.
Middleton is one of only a handful of districts we found that decreased money spent on subs, even though they had an increase in teacher days missed. Administrators say with budget cuts now having compounded for five years, every little cost counts.
"The discretionary dollars we had five years ago, is nowhere near what we're getting now. It's so much lower and it just makes budgeting and monitoring your budget so much more important because you have less dollars to work with," Darren Uranga, Middleton School District Director of Finance and Operations, said.
Schools choose different ways to work with teacher absences
Middleton is still evaluating if quality was maintained when they started using different methods for cutting the amount of subs brought in.
"We're weighing that now... to see if there was any negative effect on students, but principals reflect back to us and say they think the kids are getting as good or better education that they have," Bauscher said.
Some schools say they'll keep paying the cost of subs, because in some cases, like Homedale, there's already a lack of school days with furloughs in place since state cuts.
"So it's extremely important that we take advantage of every instructional minute that we have, and that includes having substitutes in there who can help us continue that instruction," Sauer said.
Sub costs are generally less than 1% of district budgets
To keep these costs in perspective, the cost to pay for subs averages less than 1 percent of most school budgets, according to the numbers collected. But in a time when every dollar needs to be stretched, administrators say even a little money means a lot.
Districts responding, at least in part, and included in this story are: Blaine County, Boise, Bruneau-Grandview, Buhl, Caldwell, Cambridge, Cascade, Emmett, Fruitland, Hagerman, Homedale, Jerome, Joint School District #2 (Meridian), Marsing, Melba, Middleton, Nampa, Parma, Twin Falls, Vallivue and Weiser.
Note: Districts vary greatly in size, and school years are different lengths. For this report, most schools responded with numbers reflective of teacher-contract days per year and absences associated with that school calendar.