Field Trip: The $15,000 Prize


A financial incentive to reduce the number of personal days teachers take? Here’s the story of one district’s efforts to save money, improve instruction and minimize teacher absences.

Dr. Cecelia McLoon is the Human Resources Director at Jeff Davis County Schools in Georgia. In today’s episode, she discusses the financial incentive they’re offering to any teacher with fewer than four absences, how it’s going over with their employees, and the impact they’re seeing already. We also ask her about:

Full Transcript  

What do you think of when you hear the word “attendance”? Students? Empty desks? Notes from a parent? Those are probably what most people would envision. But today, our story deals with something else.

CECELIA MCLOON: I think we all face challenges with student attendance in school systems, but it’s also with teacher attendance.

Today we visit a school district in Georgia, to find out what they’re doing to make sure teachers are in the classroom, every day.

CECELIA MCLOON: While we have great substitutes who come in, we all know that the quality of the instruction is certainly impacted when the teacher is not there.

This is the podcast for leaders in K-12, in which we bring you stories from people who are tackling age-old issues with new ideas. Every episode we take you on a journey to a different school system, and speak with superintendents, principals, HR directors, and those who work in instruction, to see what they’re doing to impact teachers and students.

CECELIA MCLOON: People stopped and said to me, “Look, Cecelia, I had no idea that we had all these absences.” And some of those people who made that comment were individuals who have no absences, and so part of this is peer pressure.

From Frontline Education, you’re listening to Field Trip.

My guest today is Dr. Cecelia McLoon, Human Resources Director at Jeff Davis County Schools in Georgia. Cecelia, we’re glad to have you with us today.

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, good morning. Thank you.

Jeff Davis County Schools is located in rural South Georgia. The district has about 3,200 students, and five schools.

CECELIA MCLOON: We call it a one-horse town, one school for every level. Timber is the main crop here, so to speak, the main employer — actually, the school system is, I think, the largest employer here. We have a high unemployment rate. And our parent population, we have a number of parents who did not finish high school, so we have some challenges in that area. But we have excelled in many areas and overcome many of those challenges.

Today we are talking about the issue of attendance, and specifically I mean teacher attendance. Is this a challenge that you face at Jeff Davis?

CECELIA MCLOON: Yes, it is. I think we all face challenges with student attendance in school systems, but it’s also with teacher attendance. And while there are a variety of reasons for that, we wanted to look for ways to encourage our employees to be at work every day that it was possible.

What impact does teacher attendance, or teacher absenteeism more specifically, have on your budget?

CECELIA MCLOON: Oh, it’s a huge impact for us. We contract with an outside agency to provide our substitutes, and so there’s a premium attached to the amount that we pay, to pay that agency. But every day a teacher’s out, it costs us in our local budget. We are only allowed in Georgia about $100 per teacher, per year, for substitutes, and so that doesn’t cover but about one day, and most employees miss far more than one day in a school year.

But even more important, Cecelia said, is the impact that teacher absences have on the education students receive.

CECELIA MCLOON: That’s probably a bigger concern than budget. While budget is always a concern, it is more important to us to focus on having those teachers in the classroom, providing quality instruction every day. While we have great substitutes who come in, we all know that the quality of the instruction is certainly impacted when the teacher is not there. And so we really are looking for ways to make sure that we keep those teachers in the classroom as much as possible.

How did you come to realize that teacher attendance was an issue? Is this something you can just see, are you looking at data? What brought this to the forefront of your attention?

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, I think we’ve talked about this. It’s kind of become a growing problem over the years, and it’s a growing problem for all work places.

As the leadership at Jeff Davis County Schools looked at this issue, they realized they were able to pull data from their absence management system — they use Frontline Absence & Time — and get a view of what was going on in their district that they hadn’t had before.

CECELIA MCLOON: And as we began to do that, and realized the power we had with the data that provided, we were able to change our conversation from, “We think we have an attendance problem,” to “Okay, this is our problem.”

So we’ve pulled data to look at year-to-year comparisons and month-to-month comparisons so that it’s no longer a conversation of, “Well, we believe that we have this issue.” Instead, it’s very tangible, and then that way we can target whether it’s a certain time of year, a certain population, or whatever it is. We can target it by looking at the data.

Cecelia and her team look at year over year data by month — they can see trends, dips in teacher attendance when, say, flu season hits. And it gives them a way to tell if attendance is rising, or dropping.

But what about their teachers? Is attendance on their radar? How do they think about the impact it has when they’re out of the classroom?

CECELIA MCLOON: I truly think that people did not understand, and so another prong of our approach this year on the attendance topic with staff is that our superintendent had a brief conversation with all staff members in our system-wide meeting at the beginning of the year. We actually provided them with some data that showed them for last school year, the amount of money that we paid out to the contracted agency for substitutes, and the amount of money that we actually “earned” from the state for substitutes, and the difference in that.

And I think when they saw those dollar values, and they saw the number of absences that had occurred, it really made them realize that there was huge financial impact. Maybe they’ve thought about the instructional impact, but I don’t believe they had thought about the financial impact. And knowing that all of that extra money came out of our local budget and could have been redirected into other areas, that definitely seemed to make an impact.

Did you get any direct feedback? Can you tell me what any of the teachers might have said when they saw this information?

CECELIA MCLOON: Definitely. I think when we left that meeting, even that day, people stopped and said to me, even, “Look, Cecelia, I had no idea that we had all these absences.” And some of those people who made that comment were individuals who have no absences, and so part of this is peer pressure. I think when we all become very aware of an issue, those of us who are compliant can have conversations with those who may not be as compliant, and encourage them to become more compliant.

So people came to my superintendent. They came to me. I even had emails, and I think even throughout the year when I’ve been in meetings, I’ve been able to make comments and people have made comments back to say, “You know, how’s that going?” And so month by month, our superintendent is emailing out to the staff to follow up from that system-wide meeting, so that it wasn’t just a one-and-done topic. He is emailing out the data so that we all know where we stand compared to last year and have we made any improvement in this area.

So, step 1: Showing people the data so they can see the real effect that it has when teachers are out of the classroom. But that’s not where they stopped. Step 2: Provide incentives.

CECELIA MCLOON: You really have to think outside the box these days, because we don’t have a tremendous amount of resources at our disposal. So what we tried to do this year was provide a financial incentive for attendance. And you have to be very careful with your retirement system guidelines in the way that you set this up so that it doesn’t impact retirement pay in any way. But we were able to set up a $15,000 pot of money, and any person this year, any staff member who is full-time who has four or less absences that are sick or personal leave, is going to be included in that pot, and we’ll divide that money out.

And so it’s been really interesting every month when Dr. Rentz provides that data out via email, and in meetings talks about it, everybody’s calculating what the piece of the pie is, and especially those who are still in there. So that’s been very interesting for us.

So, the $15,000 pot. Any teacher who has four or less absences gets a share of that money at the end of the year. And Cecelia said it’s turned into a bit of a competition.

CECELIA MCLOON: I mean, it’s like, “I don’t need to be out anymore, because I am sitting at four absences and if I have one more, I’m going to lose my share of the $15,000.” And of course, those who are still in are excited when others fall out of the pot, so you have to be good-natured about that. And we’re going to evaluate that at the end of year and decide, “Do we think that really had an impact and did it impact enough that can we make the pot larger next year?” We are going to say, “How much money did we save this year? Hopefully this was due in part to this attendance incentive, and can we increase the pot next year?”

Talk to me a little bit more about how you’re keeping people on the same page about where they’re at with their absences. Do you have leader boards or somehow keep score?

CECELIA MCLOON: No, we don’t. And you know, that’s a really great idea that we’ve been tossing around, because this is my first year in this role, so we’ve been working on this. And we’re saying, “How can this evolve?” And I think that is something that we’ve talked about doing for next year. We definitely want to find the balance, because you don’t want people to feel pressured to come to work when they truly are sick. That’s not our intent. So we want to find a balance, but we do think that we might increase the healthy competition on that and even have it be a school-by-school board with data on there to show what the attendance looks like at that point.

This seems like a remarkably simple solution. You tell your teachers, “This is what absenteeism is costing us,” you set up a competition where, for a relatively small amount of money, you’re able to incentivize people to reduce their own absences to be at school. How did it go? What are you seeing as a result of this work?

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, I think we’ve been really pleased. And I think you did pick up on, awareness is the first piece, and maybe we had not done a good job of making people aware. Sometimes we make the assumption that they know that it’s costing us, for example, in this situation, and when you provide hard numbers, that awareness piece is great.

But what we have seen, as I mentioned a little earlier, is month-by-month we have definitely seen decreases in absenteeism. Some months compared to last year, we’ve had a higher percentage, 35% less absences in a month. And some of them have definitely been lower. For example, I think it was January this year that was a really tough month for us with sickness, and so our January data from this year to last year, we still had an improvement, but I think it was around 10% at that point.

However, then we step back and look at the big picture, and we have looked at the cumulative data. So we’re still sitting at a 20-something percent decrease in absences of personal and sick days from this school year compared to last school year. And we think that’s great. I don’t know what percentage we had hoped to gain, but I don’t think that I would have hoped 20%, and we have done that so far. We’ll keep doing that until the end, and then we’re going to make a big deal for coming up with how we’re going to present that money and how we can show that off to showcase that to our entire staff, so that it’ll be an awareness piece again. And then look at how we can do it next year and hopefully continue to see improvement.

So I’d like to look at the financial impact that this effort has had. First of all, how much do substitutes cost you each year?

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, last year in our district when we pulled that data, I think we spent about $209,000 for substitutes.

Okay. And so you made this investment of about $15,000 for the pot that will get divided up at the end of the year?


What do you expect that to yield? What financial benefit do you expect that to yield over the course of this year, do you think?

CECELIA MCLOON: First of all, if we even came out even, if we gained $15,000 and gave $15,000 out, then we have put teachers in classrooms many more days, and the quality of instruction has improved, and then student performance will improve. That’s the chain. So even if we washed out, we would be happy.

I hope at this point that we’ll at least have gained about $20,000 after paying out the money, the benefit there. It could be more than that. It’s a little difficult, because the amount the substitutes cost us is based on the amount of college the substitute has completed, so one substitute costs us less than another and it varies, so that’s a little bit hard to figure. But looking at that $209,000, if we finished out with a 20% decrease in that, then you can calculate the numbers there and then subtract out the $15,000, and we still have saved local money for the district and had teachers in the classroom more days.

And have you been able to see an impact yet this year having teachers in the classroom more frequently?

CECELIA MCLOON: We don’t have any achievement data, per se, yet, because we’ll be doing all our state testing next week, but I think it’s been very, very beneficial. And also, the climate and the culture in the schools is impacted by this, because when the teachers are there doing the work and collaborating with their peers, it’s certainly a much better situation than when they’re not.

I really want to ask what you’ve learned, and maybe a better way to phrase it would be, next year will you do this again, and if so, what sort of things do you think you would do the same, and what might you change?

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, I think definitely we’re going to something next year. As we all should do, we are going to go back and really analyze the data. We’re going to look at what, money-wise, did we save, and then how many days left of absences did we have ,and what do we think that did in the classroom, and then definitely we’re going to do something. We are going to toy around with the dollar amount. I think we want to try to pull some teachers across the district and ask them their perceptions on this, and see what kind of ideas they have.

And then, definitely, do some things a little bit different. One thing, as you’ve already mentioned, is even looking at some type of competition within schools, or some way to have a leaderboard, that kind of thing.

But when I look at my data right now, from July 1 to March 31, at this moment we’ve had about 560 less days of sick and personal leave taken by staff members across the district, and this is not just teachers, but across the district. And if you were to calculate that 560 days out, an eight-hour typical day, that’s a lot of time that we’ve had people on the job doing their work that we did not have them there the year before. So there’s a lot of benefit to this beyond just that financial aspect.

And lastly, Cecelia said that as they work to solve challenges in education, she knows that good ideas come when people get together. She said she’d love to hear from leaders at other school districts as well.

CECELIA MCLOON: Because this is just one little idea, and we certainly are not reinventing the wheel with this. But I think we just have to step back, and I think we find ourselves, sometimes, especially in our leadership meetings, talking about our issues. And we think that they can’t get any better, and attendance is certainly one of those. It’s a societal issue. It’s easy to just say, “Well, it’s just the way it is,” but I think for all of us, the challenge is to step back and say, “Okay, maybe it’s the way it is, but we have to find ways to improve it. We might not make it great, but we can make improvement.” And so I’d love to hear what other people are doing, as well, because this attendance issue is something that is not just for us here at Jeff Davis.

Dr. Cecelia McLoon is the Human Resources Director at Jeff Davis County Schools in Georgia.

Cecelia, thank you again for being with us today.

CECELIA MCLOON: Well, thank you so much. I appreciated the conversation.

If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe – you can find us on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, or pretty much anywhere else fine podcasts are served. Field Trip is a production from Frontline Education — bringing you the Frontline Insights Platform, a holistic software solution for K-12, designed to help you recruit, hire, engage, retain and grow your employees, and provide unparalleled insights into what’s happening in your district.

For Frontline Education, I’m Ryan Estes. Thanks for listening, and have a great day.