Ethical Educator

A Split Decision
School Administrator, June 2020

Scenario: The head librarian at a 2,500-student high school has two direct reports, one of whom works 10 hours a week. A diligent worker, she is out on a three-month childbirth leave but wishes to return. The chief librarian hires a fill-in, who proves to be even more hardworking and independent. As the leave nears its end, the young mother seeks an additional month at home. The librarian wonders whether to accede to the request and, once she does return, to keep both workers for five hours a week, which strikes her as a paltry number of hours. The school’s principal learns of the matter. What guidance might he provide?

Meira Levinson:

The assistant librarian’s request for an additional month at home is separable from the question of whether she is due her full hours when she returns. I mean, the head librarian could use the request as a way to wangle concessions from her employee: “I’ll give you the extra month if you agree to work five rather than ten hours a week when you return.” But this would be ungenerous. Frankly, granting the request seems like a win-win, since the new mother wants the additional month at home and the replacement librarian is more efficient and effective at the job.

The question is then how to manage the assistant librarian’s return. Rather than assuming that five hours a week is too “paltry” to consider, the chief librarian should start by asking both assistants if they’d consider splitting the job. The new mother might be excited to be able to keep her job (and get out of the house a bit!) while still spending most of her time with her little one. The fill-in might be glad to have something fixed and to keep an “in” with the librarian in case a larger position opens up. If the original assistant wants to keep her original 10-hour work schedule, though, then the head librarian should grant her request, since workers should have confidence in their rights to their jobs upon returning from parental leave.

Maggie Lopez:

The principal needs to clarify with the librarian that he will not support cutting the employee’s hours. Policy and labor law should further clarify his decision. The employee on leave is entitled to return to her job with the expectation that her leave didn’t jeopardize her hours or position. 

The decision as to whether to extend the employee’s childbirth leave for another month should be guided by district policy which the principal can apply as appropriate.
Further, the principal needs to emphasize to the librarian the need from here on to inform him when considering high stakes decisions. Would the principal not have been informed on the librarian’s potential actions, it would have left staff with the question, “Will my job be changed or my hours cut if I need to take family leave, medical leave or some other leave?” No employee wants to work for a leader that presents questions of trust or fear through their actions. The librarian and other employees need to inform and communicate to the principal decisions which are high stakes, systemic or political. This issue would fall under all these categories!

The fill-in is to be commended for her hard work and perhaps there is another position in the school or the district to which she could be encouraged to apply. If in the long run the employee on leave decides not to return to work at all, then the fill-in could be considered for the position. Then the decision to realign the position would be made in a legal, fair, and ethical manner. 

Max McGee:

Delegate up!  This matter is one for the human resources director because there are certain to be policies and laws related to leave practices. Principals who try to handle complicated HR issues are more likely to make the situation worse for everyone, including themselves. If there is no higher authority to make the decision, the principal needs to let the young mother know that she will need to return to work at the end of the three-month leave or she will need to resign.  If she returns, her replacement will need to be let go with a gracious, sincere formal letter of appreciation that she could use for a future reference. If she does not return, the replacement should be strongly encouraged to apply for the vacancy.

Shelley Berman:

A 10-hour per week employee is generally employed at will, giving the librarian some discretion for handling this situation. The librarian would be well served to honor the leave extension, both as an appropriate action to support the original employee and to further assess the individual who is filling in during the leave. However, the librarian’s first commitment should be to support the original employee, who has worked diligently, and to help her develop the effectiveness and independence demonstrated by the fill-in worker.

The librarian should be cautious about retaining the temporary worker after the original employee’s leave has ended. To warrant such a decision, there would need to have been evaluations of the current employee that show deficiencies, which is unlikely. Otherwise, the new mother may have justification to file a discrimination claim against the district, even if the reason for reducing her hours or letting her go was based on better job performance by the other individual. A more appropriate time to make a change in employee status might be the end of the school year or after a performance review. 

Alternatives could include the principal’s finding the resources to hire both individuals or referring the fill-in worker to other district librarians. Clearly, the fill-in worker could be a valuable employee elsewhere in the district. 

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.