Teachers Fight State for the Right to Get Sick

SANTA FE, N.M. (CN) — In a class action resounding in politics, a veteran teacher sued New Mexico, claiming it punishes teachers for taking more than three sick days per year, though they earn nine sick days a year under their contracts.

New Mexico bases as much as 10 percent of a teacher’s annual evaluation upon attendance, with the ultimate sanction of firing for poor evaluations.

But Angela Medrow’s class action is not just about employment — politics is involved.

On March 9, Governor Susana Martinez vetoed House Bill 241, the “Teachers are Human Too Act,” which would have let teachers use their year’s full allotment of sick leave before it would affect their evaluations.

In her veto message, Martinez said the bill would lead to more teacher absences, and more expenses for substitute teachers.

“We need our teachers in our classrooms,” the governor wrote, “and House Bill 241 would lead to more teacher absences.”

Five days later, the New Mexico Senate overrode the veto — the first time either house has overridden one of Martinez’s vetoes.

A Martinez spokesman called the override a “petty action of a bitter Senate.” The state House fell 9 votes short of overriding the veto.

On Sunday, three days after Medrow sued, Martinez said a revised evaluation policy which would let teachers take up to 6 sick days per year before it affects their evaluations.

Neither party in the lawsuit could be reached for comment Monday, but Medrow’s attorney has filed for class certification and a preliminary injunction against the New Mexico Public Education Department.

Medrow seeks to represent “teachers in school districts and charter schools throughout the state of New Mexico who are subject to having their evaluation scores reduced for the use of contractually granted leave time.”

She has 12 years of experience at Logan Municipal Schools, and a master’s degree in education. During that time, she earned one day of paid sick leave per month, plus two days of paid personal leave each year. New Mexico teachers can accumulate 90 days of sick leave but no more, unless they use accrued sick leave and reduce their accumulated time to below 90 days.

The defendant New Mexico Public Education Department evaluates teachers each year on a point system, with a maximum score of 200. Based on a sliding point scale rising from “ineffective” to “exemplary,” teachers who are rated as ineffective or minimally effective can be fired if their scores do not rise in subsequent years.

One section of the point system is “Teacher Attendance,” docks points if a teacher takes off more than three days off in a school year. Teachers can earn up to 20 attendance points — 10 percent of their total annual evaluation.

Medrow used three sick days in the 2016-2017 school year, during which she learned she will need nonoptional surgery. Even scheduling her surgery for the last week of the school year, she will need to use four sick days, costing her points on her annual evaluation, even though she will not exceed her annual leave and complies with the school district’s sick leave policy.

She seeks class certification and a permanent injunction against the state using earned leave as a factor in judging teacher performance, and damages equal to the value of the leave that New Mexico teachers earned but could not take under the evaluation policies.

She is represented by Warren G. Frost of Logan.

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