Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools may be violating state law in some instances, docking pay when teachers take personal days to help cover the cost of substitutes, even when the school district doesn't hire a sub.
'An issue that needs to be addressed':
State law requires school districts to issue refunds in those instances, but Charlotte Mecklenburg Association of Educators Vice President Rae Legrone said, depending on the school, CMS doesn't always refund the money.
"On the ground, people are getting docked the $50 even if a substitute isn't covering in their classroom," Legrone said. "This happens quite a lot in some schools. This is definitely an issue that needs to be addressed."
CMS records show the district is facing its worst substitute teacher shortage in recent years with just 365 available subs compared to nearly 3,000 in 2017. As a result, other teachers are often forced to miss their planning periods and cover a coworker's class or take in extra kids from an absent teacher's room.
"I've had many, many dispersals sent into my classes," CMS middle school social studies teacher Sam Swire said. "I have not seen a single sub walk into our school."
Swire said he recently took a personal day to help a family member who was having a medical procedure and fully expects CMS to deduct $50 from his paycheck. State law requires teachers be docked that substitute deduction when they use one of two earned personal leave days during the school year. The same law states "If, however, no substitute is hired for a teacher, the substitute reduction shall be refunded to that teacher."
'It really is a slap in the face':
WCNC Charlotte found the request for absence form that teachers fill out omits that critical piece of information. Instead, it states the $50 is deducted "regardless of the fact a substitute has not been hired."
An internal email involving another teacher obtained by WCNC Charlotte echoed that same CMS stance.
"CMS HR does say that we should be refunded the money," Legrone said after a recent meeting with human resources.
Legrone, an art teacher at Olympic High School, believes the district's failure is likely the result of a lack of knowledge of the law, both by teachers and those coding absences.
"It might just be a clerical error, but that error is widespread throughout the district," she said. "It really is a slap in the face."
Teachers like Swire can't help but wonder how CMS is spending any money the district has failed to refund.
"Where is that money going?" he asked. "My coworkers had to take on the extra load for covering my kids and yet it cost me the $50 that isn't going to cover a sub."
'It's exhausting. It's draining. It is disheartening':
WCNC Charlotte requested details about how much CMS has collected in substitute deductions and how the district has spent that money. CMS provided that information following WCNC Charlotte's report. The district reports CMS has collected $50,172 so far this school year in substitute reductions when its management system reported a substitute worked.
School district officials would not talk on-camera, but in a statement said, contrary to what the school system's own paperwork and email say, CMS issues refunds.
WCNC Charlotte is always asking "where's the money?" If you need help, reach out to the Defenders team by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A district spokesperson conceded CMS needs to update its request for absence form to reflect that.
"CMS does not take the $50.00 deduction when a sub is not secured," CMS Media Relations Specialist Vicki Grooms said. "Our substitute management system, SmartFind Express, is configured to process these situations correctly for eligible employees. When an absence is processed in SmartFind Express, the system is programmed to understand the codes for when a substitute is hired/not hired after the teacher submits a Personal Leave in the system. If a substitute is not hired for that absence (as reflected in the system), the teacher's pay is not reduced by $50.00."
Grooms, though, did not rule out occasional mistakes.
"In rare cases, there can be circumstances (e.g. an employee is out on an extended leave) when there is not an automatic feed, and a deduction is erroneously taken," Grooms continued. "In those instances, a payroll correction is completed by the Benefits Department to refund the employee the $50.00 when there is no substitute hired. There may also be other instances when a sub is hired but does not report to work. In those cases, the school sends a payroll correction to the payroll department to refund the teacher for the $50.00 deduction. In other words, while the system is programmed correctly to apply deductions in accordance with state law, there can be situations that require manual intervention and refunds to employees."
Grooms said any substitute deductions collected go to support non-instructional funding, which includes paying subs, custodians and clerical staff.
There's an effort by state lawmakers to eliminate the substitute deduction altogether, as long as teachers give a reason for taking personal leave. A bill passed the North Carolina House unanimously but has yet to receive more than preliminary support in the Senate.
A spokesperson for Rep. Jeffrey Elmore (R), District 94, the sponsor of HB 362, would not comment on the future of the legislation.
"It feels belittling," Legrone said of the current law. "It feels like we're not adults with needs that need to be met outside of a working day."
Questions about the substitute deduction are the latest in a year that is growing more and more frustrating for teachers.
"This year has been extremely difficult," Swire said. "It's exhausting. It's draining. It is disheartening."