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Sick in Amherst

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

As Amherst residents brace for a Proposition 2 1/2 override vote next month, many eyes, naturally, turn to how the town is spending the money it already has. Among those budget matters to get closer inspection are the very generous benefits included in Superintendent of Schools Alberto Rodriguez's very generous contract.

Last week, the Daily Hampshire Gazette (whose corporate owner, Newspapers of New England, also owns the Valley Advocate) reported on the controversy kicking around town over the number of vacation, personal and sick days Rodriguez has taken so far this year—and the number he plans to take in coming months. Under his contract, the superintendent gets 25 vacation days, 20 sick days and three personal days, staff writer Nick Grabbe reported. (He also gets a $158,000 salary, plus an additional $10,000 housing allowance and a $5,000 travel stipend.) Rodriguez, Grabbe reported, has already used up all his vacation days a little more than halfway through the fiscal year, and has scheduled nine days of sick leave through the end of April.

It's those planned sick days in particular that seem to be sticking in the collective craw of critics, who question how the super knows in advance when he'll be sick. Rodriguez offered the Gazette a reasonable-sounding explanation: he has scheduled doctors' appointments and a "procedure" for a medical condition that he declined to name but that he described as "flaring up" and "extremely uncomfortable." (And anyone who feels the need to probe for more details after that description either lacks an imagination or is just plain mean.)

The controversy over Rodriguez's contract prompted School Committee member Kathleen Anderson to suggest that the superintendent might be the subject of tighter scrutiny because he's of Cuban descent. That's a hard one to swallow, not because racism doesn't still rear its ugly head (yes, even in Amherst), but because a school official of any race would likely meet the same questions from residents who can't help but wonder about his generous compensation at a time when they're being asked to fork over even more tax dollars.

Indeed, if residents are looking for someone to blame for Rodriguez's deal, perhaps they should look toward the School Committee that granted it in the first place.

Elsewhere in Amherst, meanwhile, a group of activists is busy trying to ensure that all working people have access to sick days—albeit not as many as Rodriguez receives. Pioneer Valley MomsRising—an affiliate of the national MomsRising group, and, locally, the political arm of the nonprofit MotherWoman—continues to push the state Legislature to pass a bill that would guarantee all workers in Massachusetts at least seven paid sick days a year. Right now, the group says, more than 1.4 million workers in the state don't get paid sick days, which puts them at risk of losing their jobs if they get sick or need to stay home to care for a sick child. MomsRising is working on the issue as part of the Massachusetts Paid Leave Coalition, which includes community and labor organizations.

The bill is currently before the Joint Committee on Labor and Workforce Development, whose House chair, Springfield state Rep. Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, supports it. (Springfield Rep. Ben Swan and Amherst Rep. Ellen Story are co-sponsors of the bill.) State Sen. Stephen Buoniconti of West Springfield and state Rep. Todd Smola of Palmer also sit on the labor committee.

MomsRising is calling on supporters to contact their legislators and urge them to move the bill out of committee so it can move forward to a hoped-for passage. "Being voted favorably out of this first committee has to happen now, early in the year, so there is enough time for the bill to make it through all the other steps and onto the Governor's desk before the legislative session ends," the group wrote to backers. "The only way to get bills moving is to make sure legislators know that their constituents want action."

For more on the bill, check out www.motherwoman.org/political-action or www.masspaidleave.org.

 

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