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Editorial: Chronic absenteeism by some teachers is one more impediment for city students

As with just about everything else regarding education in Buffalo, the matter of teacher absenteeism is a frustrating head-scratcher. According to the National Council on Teacher Quality, teachers in the Buffalo School District simultaneously posted some of the nation’s worst and best rates of attendance in the 2012-13 school year. It’s atrocious, and it’s terrific.

The question is how to encourage the terrible ones into adopting better habits. And habit seems to be the issue, the excuses offered by Philip Rumore notwithstanding. The president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation observed to a reporter that teachers are often exposed to germs when students come to school sick. And, he said, they have personal obligations, health issues and family emergencies, just like everyone else: “There are a whole lot of reasons teachers take off.”

Noted and accepted. But that still doesn’t explain why 36.8 percent of Buffalo teachers were chronically absent, defined as missing 18 or more days. Indianapolis, in contrast, recorded only 3.1 percent of teachers chronically absent. Newark, N.J., had 16.6 percent. Teachers in those schools deal with sick students, personal obligations and family emergencies, too. So what’s going on in Buffalo?

Yet, at the same time, Buffalo recorded “excellent attendance” by 30.3 percent of teachers. That performance was second only to the record of Indianapolis, where 36.9 percent of teachers achieved that rating. What does Indianapolis have that Buffalo doesn’t?

Superintendent Kriner Cash hit the nail on the head, observing that “Buffalo has some very good teachers and a lot of those were coming on a regular basis. The issue for me isn’t all the teachers, but I am concerned about the chronic absences.”

As well he should be. Patterns of excessive absenteeism by teachers not only send an unhelpful message to students, many of whom are also chronically absent, but they hinder efforts to improve graduation rates and other markers of a high-quality education. Equally bad, they are abusive of the state and local taxpayers who fund their salaries.

Cash and other district leaders had hoped to make headway on this issue as part of the recently approved contract with the BTF, but to no avail. They shouldn’t give up and they shouldn’t wait until this three-year deal expires.

Some portion of the chronically absent teachers no doubt have defensible reasons for it, but given the high rate in Buffalo, it can’t be that all of them do. The district should crack down on those who are abusing the system while looking for ways, within the bounds of the contract, to encourage better attendance.

In the end, this is about changing a culture, and the district has two of them: one characterized by pride and excellence, the other by some kind of casual indifference. The good ones could be helpful in bringing along those who are willing to improve. Consequences may be appropriate for those who are not.

If Rumore or someone else has a plausible explanation for why Buffalo parents and taxpayers should tolerate the nation’s worst rate of teacher absenteeism, then they should speak up. Otherwise, this is a matter at least as important as student attendance and conduct are. It must not be swept under the rug.

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