Board wrestles with sabbatical requests

Posted: Sunday, February 24, 2002

Concerns about district finances have scuttled a sabbatical request by a Juneau teacher.

The Juneau School Board on Tuesday denied a request by Juneau-Douglas High School Russian teacher Janna Lelchuk to take a semester off to study in Russia.

The vote was 3-2 for approval with one pass and one excused absence; four of the board's seven members must support a request for it to be approved.

The board will consider a second sabbatical request, for a year of Spanish study by elementary school teacher Kathy Nielson, on March 5.

The debate raised several questions about sabbatical agreements - including how the salary differential between the teacher on leave and the lower-cost replacement should be used. Lelchuk's request called for her to receive that differential, with deductions for her district benefits.

Board member Alan Schorr said that given the tight budget, he would like to see that money spent on other district needs.

"Funding sabbaticals is fine, if you can afford to do it," he said. "If there's money to be saved in salary, I'd prefer that (the difference) go toward hiring teachers or additional support staff."

Schorr said of the five to 10 sabbaticals granted during his 11 years on the board, he did not recall any in which the teacher received the salary differential.

Assistant Superintendent Peggy Cowan, who served on a committee that reviewed Lelchuk's request, said a sabbatical granted for the 2000 school year but not taken by the teacher was approved under provisions similar to Lelchuk's, including offering the salary differential to the teacher.

Board member Carolyn Spalding, who supported Lelchuk's request, said at Tuesday's meeting that the cost of sabbaticals is nothing more than if a teacher had never left.

"We're not paying anything extra, and in the long run we gain something extra from their development," she said.

Other concerns raised at Tuesday's meeting centered on the language of the union contract. Board Vice President Chuck Cohen said the wording should include a required period of employment upon completion of a sabbatical.

Juneau Education Association President Clay Good said sabbaticals cost nothing to the district and result in better-trained teachers.

"The district has missed a wonderful opportunity to do what's right for teachers and ultimately for kids, too, at zero cost," he said.

Lelchuk said she was "shocked" at the decision, especially after the request had been approved at several lower levels. She said receiving the salary differential would be necessary to support herself on the sabbatical, which would allow her to do advanced world language instruction study at St. Petersburg University.

Over two meetings, Lelchuk's request drew the support of four board members - Spalding, Mary Becker, Deana Darnall and Daniel Peterson. But Darnall was excused from the first meeting and Peterson from the second.

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