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DeKalb schools may give bonuses to inspire employee attendance

The financially troubled DeKalb County School District could soon be shelling out $1 million as added incentive for some of its employees to show up for work.

Interim School Superintendent Mike Thurmond says the district has a problem with employee absenteeism. And he says he’ll try to address it by putting the money into small bonuses topping out at $150 for about 3,500 low-paid employees with perfect or near-perfect attendance.

Some question whether the bonuses are large enough to make a difference for workers who earn so little — on average, a DeKalb bus driver makes $16,200 a year. Others aren’t certain the bonuses — which have received tentative school board approval — are the right priority for a district that finished the past fiscal year with a $14.5 million deficit and tentatively plans to have five to nine unpaid furlough days for staff in the next school year.

“I realize Mr. Thurmond is trying to address the problem of a very demoralized workforce,” parent Kim Gokce said. ”But I believe we should direct any ‘discretionary’ expense dollars closer to our core mission — teaching resources, instructional materials, or schoolhouse repairs and maintenance.”

Some districts in metro Atlanta already offer similar bonuses, but others do not.

Thurmond said by giving the bonuses, DeKalb will be “rewarding effort, dedication and commitment.”

“And it’s giving a little bit more compensation,” Thurmond said, to employees who have not seen pay raises since 2008.

The bonuses, essentially the return to a program that was discontinued around 2009 during the economic downturn, would start at $150 for perfect attendance. They would drop to $100 for one absence, to $75 for two and to $50 for three. There would be no bonuses for four or more absences.

They would apply, at least initially, to bus drivers, cafeteria workers, custodians, clerical staff and paraprofessionals, said Tekshia M. Ward-Smith, the school district’s chief human resources officer.

Thurmond says the bonus plan should at least be a break-even proposition — given how much the district spends on substitutes for absent workers and how disruptive the absences can be to school operations.

For example, the school district pays substitute bus drivers $15.40 an hour to work a six- or seven-hour day, depending on the route. So it would cost the district a minimum of $92.40 per day for a substitute driver.

Ward-Smith said the district has spent $850,00 over the past three school years bringing in substitutes for absent bus drivers. That doesn’t count the regular drivers who ran double and triple routes to do the work of absent colleagues, she said.

In the past school year alone, Ward-Smith said, the district spent $1.2 million on substitutes, including $222,045 to replace absent food service workers, $545,796 for bus drivers, $200,161 for clerical workers and $279,637 for paraprofessionals.

Lillian Govus, a spokeswoman for the district, said the workers are considered state employees and have the right to be off if they have sick leave, annual leave or personal leave to cover it. “While it is expensive to cover for them,” she said, “it’s not a fire-able offense.”

Melvin Johnson, DeKalb’s school board chairman, said he believes the benefits of the bonuses outweigh potential downsides.

“We would not be doing this if it did not have some net savings,” Johnson said. “Yes, you pay them to work. But there’s also sick leave and leave benefits built in for them, into all employee programs. As much as you can keep them on task and in school every day, my belief is it will be better.”

The Cobb School District offers similar bonuses to its bus drivers, who get $150 for perfect attendance in the first semester and an additional $250 in the second semester for a maximum of $400 a year.

“The incentive has helped improve attendance, which averages (an absentee rate of) about 5 to 10 percent per day but used to be higher,” school system spokesman Jay Dillon said.

Gwinnett County also has a bonus program, paying bus drivers $50 for perfect attendance for each nine-week academic period and another $50 for perfect attendance the entire school year.

Officials in other major school districts — including Cherokee, Clayton, Forsyth and Fulton — said they don’t offer attendance-based bonuses.

Some see a downside in the bonus program for children and other school system staff.

“I don’t want a bus driver who has the flu driving my kid to school just to claim perfect attendance and $150,” said Laura Ross, a mother of two from Dunwoody. “I think it’s a horrible idea.”

Thurmond said he sees the bonus program as a morale booster.

“We’re going to be rewarding people who do come to work as they should, and we’re going to be much more aggressive with those who don’t,” he said. “If [the bonus plan] doesn’t work, we’ll pull it.”

At Monday’s school board meeting, board member John Coleman asked about the value and urgency of the incentive program. Thurmond responded that bus drivers who miss work not only are costly to the district by forcing the hiring of substitutes, but also “totally disruptive” to the classroom.

“The kids miss breakfast, and, if they miss breakfast, you’re putting our teachers in an impossible situation,” Thurmond said.

He acknowledged that the bonus is “a small amount.

“But it’s a way to give people who are playing by the rules a raise,” Thurmond said.

Bus drivers are skeptical.

“Morale is low,” said Valerie Brown, a bus driver for 24 years. “I don’t see $100, $150 changing that.”

Another bus driver, Melvin Truss, said that when the district abruptly ended the bonus program around 2009, one year’s bonus was still due to workers. That, combined with cuts in pay and benefits, caused employee morale to tumble, he said.

Said Truss, “It left a pretty bad taste in your mouth.”

Staff writer Ty Tagami contributed to this article.

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