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Saturday, January 8, 2022

Marion County School Board reduces COVID-19, unpaid leave for district employees

The Marion County School Board voted on reducing the amount of unpaid leave that district employees may claim due to COVID-19 reasons.

During a special meeting last night to discuss COVID-19 leave for school employees, school board members voted in favor of a new COVID-19 leave resolution that replaces the previous one, which expired on October 31.

The previous resolution allowed for school employees, after their accrued leave time had been exhausted, to take an unpaid leave of absence for up to six weeks due to COVID-19 related reasons.

During last week’s school board meeting, board members discussed reducing that leave time to ten days beginning November 1. At the time, one board member commented that ten uncompensated days off was generous.

Ocala resident and Executive Director of the Marion Education Association, Chris Altobello, previously spoke at least week’s meeting to voice his concerns on the loss of leave for employees, as well as forcing employees to use their accrued paid leave before opting to use any unpaid leave.

During last night’s meeting, Altobello once again took to the podium to reiterate his concerns. He stated that his understanding, according to reports, is that COVID-19 cases are going down, and that this news is a “good thing.”

School board holds special meeting to discuss COVID 19 leave
Chris Altobello

Altobello pointed to board members social distancing, and suggested that both bus drivers and teachers inside close spaces that are not socially distanced are all concerned.

“I work in an office that serves four counties,” Altobello said. “Three of those counties have extended their leave: two for the entire year and one until the end of December.”

Altobello stated that he is competing for the school employees, and that the message being presented with the reduced leave “is not what our employees need to hear.”

Ocala resident and president of the Marion Education Association, Mark Avery, echoed Altobello’s concerns.

School board holds special meeting to discuss COVID 19 leave 1
Mark Avery

“What I find disheartening about this is there was no discussion with us,” Avery stated, referring to the Marion Education Association.

The message school employees are receiving, according to Avery, is “we’ll hold your position for two weeks if you’re sick, but if you’re out of time, you’re also going to be out of money.”

Avery mentioned that employees are leaving in droves, and that he is unsure how to fix this issue. He told the board that he is hoping that bargaining is going to have action and “not just be empty words.”

Eric Cummings (District 3) was the only board member to speak against the resolution.

“I agree that we do need to consider the staff, and we say we care about them, and it seems like we’re kind of snatching the rug from under them prematurely,” Cummings said.

“It’s probably going to pass,” Cummings continued, referencing the resolution, “but my support will not be for it.”

Nancy Thrower (District 4) spoke about how the board needs to go with the data that is currently being seen.

“If there’s one thing that we’ve learned through this pandemic,” Thrower said, “is that, once again, it’s important to do the simple things well.” She stated that the Marion County board has been the model compared to many districts in how the employees have been treated.

Thrower highlighted how during the shutdown, every single employee got paid, whether they worked or not.

“I feel like this is one of those situations where we’re on the cusp of getting back to some normalcy,” Thrower added.

Allison Campbell (District 1) backed Thrower’s statements, and stated that no employee has come to her to voice any concerns regarding the COVID-19 leave.

Campbell pointed out that if no decision on a new resolution was made, there would be nothing for employees, including the 10 days of leave.

After discussion, the board voted 4-1 in favor of approving the resolution, with Cummings the lone dissenter.

“This, to me, is not a closed door,” Thrower stated. “There are lots of other ideas that can come forward. Time will tell if this was the right and appropriate decision for the time. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t meet again and talk it over again should a big need arise.”