Houston ISD clarifies strict absence policy after widespread confusion among administrators and teachers

Campus leaders previously said 10 absences would lead to automatic termination. According to the district’s head of human resources, the policy is more complicated. 

Houston ISD Headquarters
Florian Martin / Houston Public Media
Houston ISD’s Hattie Mae White Administration Building.

After months of conflicting directives from campus administrators and the Houston ISD Central Office, the head of the district's human resources clarified that teachers will not face automatic termination or the loss of stipends if they miss work.

"My understanding is that clear communication about employees not exceeding 15 days has been implemented since August of 2023," said Jessica Neyman, HISD Chief Human Resources Officer. "We think we’ve struck a really appropriate balance between the expectations for teachers, what we’re in service to students to accomplish, what parents expect for their students at school, and, of course, what taxpayers would expect with the taxpayer monies that are going toward supporting these employees."

Multiple HISD teachers told Houston Public Media that campus administrators across the district have said 10 absences would lead to automatic termination. At a school in the New Education System (NES) reform program — where teachers receive $10,000 stipends — at least one campus principal told educators that they would lose the stipend after three disciplinary write-ups or five absences.

Angela Schultz is a teacher at an NES school.

"We were told at the beginning of the year, during pre-service, if we missed 10 days, we would be immediately terminated," Schultz said. "Now they are saying if you have more than three (disciplinary) memos or write ups, you do not qualify for the stipend."

"Actually, it’s 15," Neyman explained. "You just can’t go over 15 paid days" without facing disciplinary action, including "possible termination."

Neyman said that no teachers would face automatic termination for any reason, and she said she was "unaware" of any policy tying stipends to attendance.

She said the high-absence policy applies to discretionary time-off like vacation — "or, in that 15-day time, you didn’t report to work because you had a sickness — both of those are included in that 15-day total." She added that some types of extended leaves are protected under federal law, like absences due to a serious medical emergency. According to Neyman, the 10-day rule applies only to workers on 10-month contracts who haven't accrued paid-time off.

"If you’re a new employee with the district, and you’re a 10-month employee, you’re what we call ‘front-loaded' 10 days," she said. "And if you were to slide into the 11th day, that would be an unpaid leave day ... and the next step is you would be referred for review of whether disciplinary action is appropriate."

After they were appointed by the Texas Education Agency in June, Superintendent Mike Miles and the Board of Managers quickly turned their attention to the district's time-off policy. In August, they clawed back the number of consecutive discretionary days teachers can miss from three to two, and they changed the number of back-to-back sick days staffers can take without a doctor's note from seven to three.

At the time, Miles said there were too many teachers missing too many days, and he argued good attendance is a key pillar of the "high-performance culture" he hopes to create in the district. Since then, there's been widespread confusion over the actual policy implementation.

Brian Tucker started the school year as a special education teacher at Sugar Grove Academy, one of the NES schools. He's already had several absences for medical reasons.

Tucker said he's struggled to gain clarity from administrators as paid time off policies have shifted over the past few months, and he argued workers should have a right to use their full range of benefits — especially accrued sick time — without facing penalties.

"You feel like you’re being lied to and manipulated," he said. "I didn’t sign any new contract that, you know, I was giving my rights away ... All of a sudden, they changed the rules."

On Wednesday, the day after he spoke with Houston Public Media, Tucker was reassigned from the special education team at Sugar Grove Academy to a desk job at one of the district's division offices. He said there was existing tension with campus administrators over the absences, as well as disagreements about the way they managed teachers.

Union president Jackie Anderson, with the Houston Federation of Teachers, criticized the crackdown on absences, which began after educators agreed to work in the district under the previous, more lenient policy.

"This is a culture of intimidation," Anderson said.